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Profile: Brian Ross

Brian Ross was a participant or observer in the following events:

On October 26, 2001, Peter Jennings starts ABC News’s World News Tonight evening news broadcast with the comment: “We’re going to begin this evening with what we believe is a meaningful lead in the most sensitive anthrax case so far, despite a very recent denial by the White House. ABC News has learned what made the anthrax so dangerous in the letter to Senator Tom Daschle was a particular additive which only one country, as far as we know, that’s a very important caveat, only one country as far as we know, has used to produce biological weapons.”
Bentonite - ABC News reporter Brian Ross then adds: “The discovery of bentonite came in an urgent series of tests conducted at Fort Detrick, Maryland, and elsewhere. [Bentonite is] a substance which helps keep the tiny anthrax particles floating in the air by preventing them from sticking together. It’s possible other countries may be using it, too, but it is a trademark of Saddam Hussein’s biological weapons program.”
Significance - Jennings ends the story by commenting: “This news about bentonite as the additive is being a trademark of the Iraqi biological weapons program is very significant. Partly because there’s been a lot of pressure on the Bush administration inside and out to go after Saddam Hussein. And some are going to be quick to pick up on this as a smoking gun. There is a battle about Iraq that’s been raging in the administration.”
Repeated - The story is repeated by ABC over the next several days, especially by Ross. Qualifications in the initial story are dropped over the next few days as Ross definitely claims that the anthrax “was laced with bentonite” and “the anthrax found in a letter to Senator Daschle is nearly identical to samples they recovered in Iraq in 1994.” On October 28, Ross claims, “[D]espite continued White House denials, four well-placed and separate sources have told ABC News that initial tests on the anthrax by the US Army at Fort Detrick, Maryland, have detected trace amounts of the chemical additives bentonite and silica.” [ABC News, 10/29/2001; Salon, 4/9/2007; Salon, 8/1/2008]
ABC News Keeps Promoting Story despite White House Denial - On October 29, ABC News notes that White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer has denied that bentonite was found on the letters. Fleischer says that no test or analysis has shown the presence of bentonite, and “no other finding contradicts or calls into question” that conclusion. But ABC News continues to push the story and quotes former UN weapons inspector Tim Trevan, who says that bentonite “means to me that Iraq becomes the prime suspect as the source of the anthrax used in these letters.” ABC News even brings up the alleged meeting between 9/11 hijacker Mohamed Atta and an Iraqi spy in Prague, and quotes former UN weapons inspector Richard Butler: “There are reports that one of the things that may have happened at that meeting was that [Atta] was given by the Iraqi some sample of anthrax.… We do not know if that is true. I believe it is something that should be investigated.” [ABC News, 10/29/2001]
Dropped, Sort Of - ABC News finally drops the story on November 1, when Ross reports: “The White House said that despite initial test results which we reported suggesting the presence of a chemical called bentonite, a trademark of the Iraqi weapons program, a further chemical analysis has ruled that out. The White House says there are chemical additives in that anthrax including one called silica.” Yet this account is not entirely correct, because the White House denied the story from the very beginning, as ABC News made clear in their first stories on the subject, and their quoting of White House Press Secretary Fleischer. [TVNewser, 8/6/2008] But an ABC News article the same day by Gary Matsumoto continues to push the bentonite theory, despite acknowledging that lab results do not show signs of bentonite. He argues that perhaps a different form of bentonite was used that did not show the usual signs. He also argues that perhaps the anthrax was coated with silica, which would be another sign of high sophistication and possible government involvement in the attacks. This is the theory the White House is pushing (see October 25-29, 2001), although it too will eventually be discredited by the FBI (see August 2006). [ABC News, 11/1/2001]
Iraq's Link to Bentonite Questioned - In October 2002, the Washington Post will reveal that early in the anthrax investigation, “US authorities dismissed the possibility that Iraq could have sponsored the attacks because investigators determined that the spores had been coated with silica to make them disperse quickly, rather than the mineral bentonite, regarded by the US Army Medical Research and Materiel Command as Iraq’s additive of choice.” Furthermore, “Iraq’s alleged preference for bentonite appears to be based on a single sample of a common pesticide collected by UN authorities from Iraq’s Al Hakam biological weapons facility in the mid-1990s.” [Washington Post, 10/28/2002]
Common Clay - Salon columnist Glenn Greenwald will later note: “The very idea that bentonite is ‘a troubling chemical additive,’ let alone that it is some sort of unique Iraqi hallmark, is inane. Bentonite is merely a common clay that is produced all over the world, including from volcanic eruptions.” A geology professor comments: “It is not ‘a chemical additive’ and it is not unique to Iraq. It is widespread and common, and readily available wherever you can get ‘drilling mud.’” [Salon, 4/9/2007]
No Correction - But even though it emerges that bentonite was never actually detected in the anthrax samples, ABC News will not correct its story until after it is heavily pressured to do so in late 2008 (see August 6, 2008).

Entity Tags: Tim Trevan, Richard Butler, Glenn Greenwald, Gary Matsumoto, Peter Jennings, Ari Fleischer, ABC News, Brian Ross

Timeline Tags: Events Leading to Iraq Invasion, Domestic Propaganda, 2001 Anthrax Attacks, US Domestic Terrorism

Alexis Debat.Alexis Debat. [Source: PBS]Conservative security consultant Alexis Debat, a former French military official often used by ABC News and other US media outlets, admits that he published an interview with Democratic senator and presidential candidate Barack Obama that he never conducted. In the interview, Obama supposedly said that Iraq was “already a defeat for America” and that the US has “wasted thousands of lives.” Debat claims that he signed off on the article, published in the Summer 2007 issue of the French magazine Politique Internationale, but did not write it, instead farming it out to a freelance journalist, Rob Sherman, and having it published under Debat’s name. Sherman concocted the interview, says Debat, who says both he and Obama are victims. [Washington Post, 9/13/2007] “Rob Sherman asked me to remove his name from the interview, and my mistake was to put my name on it,” says Debat. [ABC News, 9/12/2007] “I was scammed. I was very, very stupid. I made a huge mistake in signing that article and not checking his credentials.” [Washington Post, 9/13/2007]
Greenspan: No Such Interview - Former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan said on September 7 that an interview with him, conducted by Debat and published in the same magazine, also never happened. [Rue 89, 9/7/2007]
Many US Officials Also Not Interviewed - Hours after Obama’s campaign disavowed the Debat interview, numerous other US politicians and business figures also say they were victimized by fake interviews supposedly conducted by Debat. Those figures include former President Bill Clinton, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, former Secretary of State Colin Powell, New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, Microsoft founder Bill Gates, and former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Politique Internationale editor Patrick Wajsman says “This guy is just sick,” and says his magazine is removing all of Debat’s work from its Web site. Annan’s deputy communications director, Stephane Dujarric, says he warned the magazine that the Annan interview was a fabrication back in June 2005, and said that if the magazine published it—which it did—Annan’s office would “denouce the interview as a fake. This was not some obscure guy. This was the sitting secretary-general of the UN, and the magazine was told it was a fake.” Nevertheless, ABC News and Politique Internationale continued to rely on Debat as a source of information and a regular contributor of “interviews” with a variety of influential Americans. The magazine published a second interview with Annan earlier this year, but it, too, was a fabrication, apparently culled from a speech Annan gave at Princeton University. Wajsman calls the publications of the Annan interviews either a “technical” error or a misunderstanding. “I was a victim of this man. I had no reason to suspect someone like him could lie,” Wajsman says. So why did Wajsman continue to rely on Debat after the UN protests? “Everybody can be trusted once,” Wajsman says. “He seemed to be well-connected in Washington, working for ABC and the Nixon Center.” Debat admits he never interviewed any of the above-named figures, but explains: “The magazine asked me to send questions. They got the answers, and then I edited and translated them and put my name on it.” Wajsman retorts, “That is an outright lie.” [ABC News, 9/13/2007]
Debat Frequent Source of Unreliable Information on Iran - Debat has been a frequent source of incendiary information and commentary about the US’s need to invade Iran; on September 2, The Times of London published commentary from Debat in which he claimed the US is planning massive, systematic air strikes against Iran, and called it a “very legitimate strategic calculus” (see Late August, 2007). Recent reports have claimed that an organized campaign to insert reports and commentary in the US and European media drumming up support for a US attack against Iran is being orchestrated by the office of Vice President Dick Cheney. [Attytood, 9/13/2007]
Debat Falsified University Record - Debat’s other reports are now being scrutinized for possible fabrications. ABC News fired Debat in June 2007 after finding that Debat lied about his background: Debat claimed he has a Ph.D from the Sorbonne, when in fact he does not. (Debat claims he earned his Ph.D, but the university hasn’t granted him the degree because of an “administrative issue.”) ABC’s chief investigative reporter Brian Ross, who has worked closely with Debat and has high praise for his work, now says: “I was angry with him because it called into question, of course, everything he had done. He could never satisfy us that he had the Ph.D.… I was very upset.” Debat has specialized in reports on terrorism and national security for the last six years. ABC spokesman Jeffrey Schnieder says that while it has so far verified all of Debat’s reporting: “There are some very serious questions about exactly who he is and how he works. We want nothing more than to get to the absolute bottom of that.” Debat directed the terrorism and national security program from Washington’s Nixon Center, a conservative think tank set up by former President Richard Nixon. He wrote for the conservative political journal National Interest, which is chaired by Henry Kissinger. Debat has now resigned both positions. His position as a regular contributor to Politique Internationale has also probably ended, Debat admits. [Washington Post, 9/13/2007]
'Never Spoke with Your Alexis What's-His-Name' - The French magazine Rue 89 exposed Debat earlier this week, calling him a “strange character” and questioning his credibility. It interviewed the purported freelance journalist, Rob Sherman, who is not a journalist but a radio talk show host in Chicago; according to Sherman, he “never spoke with your Alexis what’s-his-name.” It also reports that Debat once claimed to have earned a Ph.D from Edenvale University, in Britain, an institution that does not exist. He has also claimed to be the director of the scientific committee for the Institut Montaigne in Paris, which denies Debat ever worked with it; he has appeared on French television news claiming to be a former social worker and to be a former French commando who fought against Serbian soldiers in Yugoslavia, claims which have not been confirmed. As for his service in the French military, the French government confirms that Debat indeed held a desk job in its Ministry of Defense for a few months. [Rue 89, 9/7/2007]
'Lone Wolf' or Disinformation Source? - Philadelphia Daily News journalist Will Bunch observes: “[T]here are two radically different ways to look at this scandal. Either Debat is a lone wolf, a deluded self-aggrandizer whose main agenda is promoting himself. Or he is acting in his role at the Nixon Center as a conduit, spreading information and occasional disinformation at the behest of others.” [Attytood, 9/13/2007]
ABC News Also to Blame - Reporter Laura Rozen, a regular contributor to numerous high-end US media outlets such as the Boston Globe and Mother Jones, is unforgiving of both Debat and ABC News: “My own feeling as primarily a print world reporter… is that it is deeply problematic for a news organization to have a paid source/consultant to sometimes put on the reporter hat and act as the reporter too.… Seriously, imagine if a New York Times reporter put an ex-NSC or CIA operative on the payroll for about $2,000 to $4,000 a month as a source, cited in articles as a source, and then sometimes let him or her report news stories with a byline, without glaringly indicating to readers what was going on. But this is what ABC was doing with Debat. ABC must have known they were stretching the rules on this one. For instance, their consultant Richard Clarke is never presented as the reporter. But ABC changed the rules in the Debat case, presumably because he was bringing them such sexy scoops, that they loved flacking at the time. Now they insist the scoops were solid, but Debat misrepresented his credentials. They’re blameless.… [D]id ABC bend the rules by paying a source who also served as their reporter while having a full time appointment elsewhere, smoothing over any complications by calling him an all purpose ‘consultant?’ How much did Brian Ross approve the unusual arrangement and independently verify the information Debat was bringing from the dark corners of Pakistan? [If] Debat faked interviews for a French journal, what was to keep him from faking interviews that informed multiple stories for ABC? I find it implausible that ABC has independently re-reported all that stuff so quickly and determined it’s kosher.” [Laura Rozen, 9/12/2007]

Entity Tags: Politique Internationale, Philadelphia Daily News, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, Richard A. Clarke, William Jefferson (“Bill”) Clinton, Will Bunch, Stephane Dujarric, Patrick Wajsman, William Gates, Nixon Center, Richard M. Nixon, Michael R. Bloomberg, Brian Ross, Barack Obama, ABC News, Alexis Debat, Alan Greenspan, French Ministry of Defense, Colin Powell, Nancy Pelosi, Laura Rozen, London Times, Jeffrey Schnieder, Henry A. Kissinger, Kofi Annan

Timeline Tags: US confrontation with Iran, Iraq under US Occupation, Domestic Propaganda

ABC hires John Kiriakou, a former CIA officer who gave the network an exclusive interview about waterboarding in late 2007 (see December 10, 2007), as a paid consultant. ABC journalist Brian Ross will say that network officials were concerned about the appearance of a tie between the interview and the job. For that reason, “I felt that we should sort of wait,” he will say. “I didn’t want anyone to think that he was promised something for the interview. He was not.” Kiriakou remains with ABC for eight months, before leaving for the Council on Foreign Relations. Shortly after his departure, the press learns that one of the key claims he made in the interview was false (see April 28, 2009). [New York Times, 4/28/2009]

Entity Tags: ABC, Brian Ross, Council on Foreign Relations, John Kiriakou

Timeline Tags: Misc Entries, Domestic Propaganda

In the face of pressure after the death of anthrax attacks suspect Bruce Ivins, ABC News responds to criticism of its false stories in October 2001 linking the anthrax attacks to Iraq (see October 26-November 1, 2001). ABC News, particularly its reporter Brian Ross, repeatedly pushed a story claiming that initial analysis of the anthrax used in the attacks showed that it contained bentonite, and that this was a signature of anthrax used by the Iraqi government. In fact, no tests ever showed any signs of bentonite in the anthrax, and bentonite was not a signature of Iraqi anthrax in any case (see October 26-November 1, 2001). Ross responds to questions about his reporting, but to the obscure media outlet TVNewser instead of on ABC News itself. He says: “In the end, you’re only as good as your sources. My sources were good, we just got information that became outdated before they could update. My point of view is viewers of World News knew early that week we had been wrong to say bentonite.” In 2001, Ross claimed his story was backed by four independent sources. Now, he reveals, “Our sources were current and former government scientists who were all involved in analyzing the substance in the letter.” But he says that anthrax suspect Ivins was not one of those sources: “No he was not. If it was Ivins, I would report that in a second.” He continues to maintain that ABC News was not lied to and initial tests had simply given a mistaken result, confusing bentonite for silica. [TVNewser, 8/6/2008]

Entity Tags: ABC News, Bruce Ivins, Brian Ross

Timeline Tags: Domestic Propaganda, 2001 Anthrax Attacks

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