My Long, Long-Delayed Response to ProPublica

by Jim Lobe

As readers of this blog know, I’ve had a series of exchanges with editors at ProPublica regarding my critique of an article published July 11 and entitled “The Terror Threat and Iran’s Inroads in Latin America” by their award-winning national-security and terrorism reporter, Sebastian Rotella, as well as another article he published in the Los Angeles Times in 2008 about an alleged Iranian bomb plot against the Israeli embassy in Baku, Azerbaijan, on which Gareth Porter posted his own critique. The latter exchange took place August 22-23. The last exchange on the Iran-Latin America story, which included ProPublica editor-in-chief Stephen Engelberg’s reply to my original critique, was posted on both LobeLog’s and ProPublica’s websites August 14. As I describe below, I regret that it’s taken me so much time to respond — my news-reporting responsibilities for IPS on the crises in Egypt and Syria are my excuse. But I felt that ProPublica’s response to my original critique deserved a thorough reply.

Dear Steve:

I’m sorry for responding so late to yours of August 4. Clearly, a combination of vacation, Egypt, and Syria intervened, and I had to give priority to reporting on the latter two for IPS. And then, amid all that, we had the contretemps over Mr. Rotella’s 2008 article on the alleged Iranian plot to bomb the Israeli embassy in Baku and Gareth Porter’s response.

But I would like to thank you for taking the time and effort to respond to both my critique of Mr. Rotella’s article and to my appeal that additional corrections to that article be made. As a daily subscriber, I know and respect the importance of ProPublica’s mission.

Unfortunately, however, I was disappointed by the substance of your response, especially the fact that you chose to ignore altogether the harsh assessment of the article by Dr. Pillar that was cited in both my message and the longer critique and to gloss over other key issues, such as the way in which the correction belatedly issued by you actually served to undermine the article’s central thesis expressed in its title, “The Terror Threat and Iran’s Inroads to Latin America.” I would therefore like to take this opportunity to address both the specific points you raised in your response more or less in the order in which they were raised and to raise some more general questions about how you see ProPublica’s responsibilities as the nation’s premier non-profit investigative news agency in covering as fraught and consequential a subject as alleged Iranian terrorism against the U.S. and its allies in the Americas and beyond.

First, some caveats:

When I read an article about alleged Iranian skullduggery around the world, I pay particularly close attention to the sourcing. It is no secret that the government of Israel and its advocates here are particularly hostile to Iran which, at times, they have depicted as an “existential” threat to Israel’s survival. As a result, they have consistently opposed the possibility of any détente or rapprochement between Tehran and Washington. In pursuit of that aim, they have waged a public information or “perception management” campaign designed to promote fear of the Islamic Republic – both here in the U.S. and elsewhere – with respect not only to Iran’s nuclear program, but also to its alleged terrorist activities and other misdeeds; among them, its support for and close relationship with Hezbollah. This campaign has intensified over the past few years as a result of which reporters should, in my view, maintain a healthy degree of skepticism about claims by Israeli government sources (who, it is widely known, often insist on being referred to as “Western officials”) or staunchly pro-Israel individuals or organizations, such as the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and its spin-off, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), the American Foreign Policy Council (AFPC), the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), the Hudson Institute, the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA), among others, regarding alleged Iranian plots and conspiracies, just as they should with respect to Tehran’s denials. Extra efforts, I believe, should be made to critically scrutinize the veracity of such claims rather than to accept them at face value before passing them along to the reader. After all, the failure of mainstream media to adequately scrutinize claims made by the George W. Bush administration and its advocates regarding Saddam Hussein’s alleged weapons of mass destruction programs, links to al Qaeda and other terrorist groups, etc. has to be considered a major contributing factor to the invasion of Iraq, a precedent that should weigh heavily on reporters covering intelligence regarding Iran and its alleged activities.

If such considerations should apply to daily news reporters like myself, they should apply in spades to investigative reporters. In my view, they have a special responsibility to use the time, expertise and resources available to them to go beneath the surface, to take nothing for granted, to probe deeply and carefully into the subject matter of a story or a source to determine its credibility and, ultimately, its veracity. Thus, for example, while I, as a news reporter, would cover a Congressional hearing by quoting the testimony of the witnesses, adding a little context and background and perhaps a contrary view here and there for balance, I would expect an investigative reporter covering that same hearing or its subject matter to take the time and effort necessary to assess as rigorously as possible the credibility of the witnesses, to carefully check the “facts” on which their testimony is based, their possible motivations, and anything else that could bear on the reliability of their assertions, particularly on a subject as sensitive as Iranian involvement in or direction of terrorist activities. It is in this respect that I believe Mr. Rotella fell short.

Why didn’t the misattributed Clapper quote raise suspicion?

As you note in your correction – and unfortunately gloss over (as if the opinions about alleged Iranian terrorism in the Americas by a virulently anti-Iranian Miami politician should be given the same weight as those of the Director of National Intelligence) — Mr. Rotella, apparently relying on the written testimony of AFPC’s Ilan Berman, quoted DNI Clapper as saying that Iran’s Latin American alliances could pose “an immediate threat” by offering it a “platform in the region to carry out attacks against the United States, our interests, and allies” when those words were actually spoken by Florida Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. Unlike Mr. Rotella, I am no expert on Latin America and Iran’s activities there, but I suspected immediately upon reading the misattributed quote that something was wrong, and that, if indeed Clapper had publicly made such a remarkable assertion in January 2012, I assumed I would have heard about it since then.

Moreover, the quote in question was clearly inconsistent with statements by “two senior administration officials” during a May 31 State Department background briefing on the topic of “Iran, the IRGC, and Hezbollah’s Increased Terrorist Activity Worldwide,” a briefing which apparently went completely ignored by Mr. Rotella. So I started Googling, and, within just a few minutes, I had reason to believe that it was Ros-Lehtinen’s quote, not Clapper’s. I then went to the DNI website to search if the relevant phrase appeared there. It did not. When I called the DNI’s office a few days later to make absolutely certain I had not missed something, the press officer went through the same process and, within a similarly short period of time, came to the same conclusion (and then, apparently, called ProPublica the following day to request a correction).

Given his own expertise on both Latin America and terrorism, how was it that Mr. Rotella didn’t also suspect something was wrong with the quote and take just the few minutes it would have required to ensure its provenance and accuracy? I assume that, as a matter of course, he would have closely followed whatever the DNI was saying about Iranian cover activities in Latin America, because the DNI obviously speaks for the entire U.S. intelligence community. Moreover, how could he have missed State’s background briefing (the transcript of which was available on the State Department’s website at the time his story was written) in which one of the two senior officials stated flatly:

“We don’t have evidence of an operational network – Hezbollah across South America, but it’s something that we watch for very, very, very closely. We know that Hezbollah as an organization does benefit from fundraising activity or commercial activity that ultimately benefits the organization back in Lebanon. But as for an operational link to activities in South America, Central America, or Mexico, we don’t have that. [Emphasis added].”[1]

Would the administration briefer have been so categorical if s/he didn’t have the backing of the intelligence community on this question? To me, these two oversights are simply incomprehensible under the circumstances.

If the misattribution of Clapper’s quote deserves a correction, why not the misinformation about undocumented Iranians seeking asylum in Canada?

As you note, however, ProPublica immediately issued its correction when informed by a government official about the misattribution. While I will address below why I think the correction itself clearly undercut the main thesis of the article, the fact that ProPublica felt obliged to make it raises a second question regarding your refusal to make a correction regarding Joseph Humire’s testimony about Iranian migrants going to Canada. It is true that Humire wrote what you said he wrote: that “Iran is the number one source of improperly documented migrants to Canada” and that most of these migrants apply for refugee status. But Mr. Rotella included only the first part of that sentence: “Witness Joseph Humire, a security expert, cited a report last year in which the Canadian Border Services Agency described Iran as the top source of illegal migrants to Canada, most of them coming through Latin America.” There’s nothing in his paragraph about refugees at all. Imagine what kinds of images his sentence conjures up in the minds of average American readers, especially in the present context: that there are more illegal immigrants coming to Canada from Iran than from any other country, including Mexico or Central America or the Caribbean (which is why I used the word “flood” to describe what Mr. Rotella’s words were suggesting). But if Mr. Rotella or his editors had stepped back for a moment and examined that assertion, would they not have questioned whether Iran could really be the top source of undocumented immigrants to Canada? The notion seems quite bizarre on its face. Would such an assertion not invite a little further investigation, such as by actually looking at the CBSA report cited by Mr. Humire to ensure that what he is quoted as saying was in fact true? Apparently, neither Mr. Rotella nor his editors believed that was necessary.

Of course, had he looked at the report, he would have realized that Mr. Humire’s statement was flat-out wrong and that Iran was the not Canada’s biggest source of undocumented migrants; it was Canada’s biggest source of undocumented migrants who were applying for refugee status (at the rate of only about 300 a year), a fact which casts an entirely different light on both the nature and scope of Iranian migration to Canada and on its consistency with the rather sinister context in which Mr. Rotella placed this bit of misinformation. Moreover, had he looked at the report, as you note, he would have found that most Iranian asylum-seekers since at least 2010 left for Canada from embarkation points in Western Europe, not Latin America – a very significant fact because it contradicts Mr. Rotella’s assertion (which he attributes to the Canadian report) that “most” of the illegal Iranian migrants were “coming through Latin America.”

That is why I requested a correction, and, frankly, I don’t see how why you would issue a correction on the Clapper/Ros-Lehtinen misattribution and not on Mssrs. Humire’s and  Rotella’s misstatements about the findings of the Canadian report. In both cases, Mr. Rotella relied on the questionable testimony of a hearing witness apparently without bothering to check its veracity. In both cases, the testimony turned out to be seriously flawed. In both cases, those flaws were easily discoverable with a few minutes’ research. In both cases, those flaws were brought to ProPublica’s attention by outside parties. Yet in only one case has a correction been made.

According to ProPublica’s code of ethics, “When mistakes are made, they need to be corrected — fully, quickly and ungrudgingly.” So why not publish a correction regarding the mistaken assertions made by Mr. Humire in his testimony and by Mr. Rotella’s account of the embarkation points for most undocumented Iranian migrants seeking asylum in Canada? Why leave your readers with mistaken information?

A second provision in the code of ethics provides that: “No story is fair if it omits facts of major importance or significance. Fairness includes completeness.” Obviously, a number of very important facts about Iranian flows of illegal migration into Canada were omitted in Mr. Rotella’s account, facts that I included in my critique. Those facts were, in my view, of major importance not only because their inclusion would have presented a much different picture of the actual situation regarding Iranian undocumented migrants going to Canada than that presented in the story. They were also important because Mr. Humire’s testimony is used by Mr. Rotella to set the stage for his closing argument about the crucial role allegedly played by Venezuela in providing documents to Iranians and other “suspected Middle Eastern operatives” to carry out their sinister designs, as he described them in his portentous introduction about last year’s secret meeting between the mysteriously unnamed senior IRGC official and his Venezuelan counterparts. It’s the kind of device that I think Dr. Pillar, who, in addition to his work as NIO for the Middle East and South Asia from 2000 to 2005, also served as chief of analysis and later deputy director of the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center (CTC) during the 1990s, was referring to when he described Mr. Rotella’s article as appearing “to go out of the way to raise suspicions about Iranian activities in the hemisphere, by dumping together material that is either old news or not really nefarious, and stringing it together with innuendo” – a remarkably damning criticism considering the credentials of the source — that you failed to address seriously in your reply.

Kadir: Another Case of Innuendo Without Supporting Evidence

As to the Kadir case, Mr. Rotella’s and your contention that Kadir was indeed a “longtime intelligence operative for Iran” and constituted the kind of “platform in the region to carry out attacks against the U.S….” that Ros-Lehtinen – not the DNI — was apparently referring to rests on two major sources: the Justice Department press release about his sentencing and the Nisman report which also quotes the FBI investigator, Robert Addonizio as testifying that Kadir’s activity “were those of a spy.” In responding, I am at a disadvantage because I have only the DOJ’s press release and the 31-page summary of the Nisman report that FDD published on its website.[2]  The clear implication of this part of Mr. Rotella’s story and the context in which it was presented is that Iran was behind – or at least condoned — the JFK plot.

But what was the evidence for such an insinuation? No Iranian was indicted in the plot (as there was in the Arbabsiar case, for example). No testimony that Kadir was involved in the plot at the behest of any Iranian authority was presented at trial or mentioned in the Justice Department’s press release. (Indeed, the release alleged that Kadir was trying to travel to Iran apparently in hopes of “enlist[ing]” its support for the plot when he was arrested, which raises the question of why such a trip would be necessary if he was in such consistent contact with highers-up in the Iranian intelligence services.) Mr. Addonizio’s original complaint on which the arrest warrant was based did not even mention any ties between Kadir and Iran. And what precisely is the relevance of Kadir’s testimony that he felt “himself bound to follow fatwas from Iranian religious leaders,” unless there’s evidence that one of those leaders had issued a fatwa authorizing an attack on JFK airport? (Quoting one of the alleged conspirators, FDD’s summary of the Nisman report maintains that Kadir was travelling to Iran in hopes of obtaining a fatwa.) In any event, Mr. Rotella’s strong suggestion that Iran had endorsed Kadir’s involvement in the plot is yet another example of the story’s use of innuendo.[3]

Part of that innuendo, of course, is the use of the word “operative” by Mr. Rotella to describe Kadir’s relationship to Iran’s intelligence service(s). But was he really an “operative”? I took the liberty of sending to Dr. Pillar both Mr. Rotella’s original description of Kadir’s role and your description as provided to me in your response to my critique and asked him whether, given his 28-year career in the CIA, Kadir could be called an “operative.” This was his reply:

The description is that of a source.  This is so whether he was doing what he was doing on a totally voluntary basis, or he was blackmailed, or he was motivated by money, or whatever.  It also is true whether he was spying or was collecting openly available information.  And it is true whether the information he passed reflected his own selection or was in response to questions levied on him. Although “operative” is not part of an official lexicon, I think most people familiar with the lexicon would equate “operative” with what our services would call an operations officer or case officer.  That means a professional intelligence person who recruits and manages sources of information (including sources who are doing spying).  That is quite different from being one of the sources whom an operations officer might manage.

So, according to this definition, Kadir was a “source” which, of course, sounds a lot less menacing and sinister than “operative” and would thus have undermined the portentous nature of Mr. Rotella’s narrative.

Now, the 32-page summary of the Nisman report goes into much greater detail about Kadir’s alleged role and activities going back all the way to 1983 when Tehran allegedly “accepted Abdul Kadir as its agent in Guyana.” According to this account, Kadir was “trained and supported by Iran,” although it does not indicate how precisely he was supported and what he was trained to do besides “propagat[e] the fundamentalist vision emanated from Iran.” (If he was trained as an “operative,” the fact that he used the Guyanese postal service to transmit his letters to the Iranian ambassador in Caracas and Rabbani suggests that his training was less than professional.) Unlike the U.S. prosecution, which made no such allegation, Nisman’s report, quoting a confidential informant, maintains that Iranian intelligence was itself, coincidentally, already developing its own plans to attack JFK airport at the time but decided that the plot hatched by Kadir’s confederates was better. And yet despite Iran’s alleged approval of the plot and the “ideological, logistical and financial support” it allegedly provided to Kadir for this purpose, the report asserts that the plotters decided to use the funds “collected for charity by voluntary donations of Muslims, with the purpose of financing the passport expenses of the person sent to Iran to pitch the terrorist plot.” (Emphasis mine.)  So it appears that this “longtime Iranian operative” had been given no expense account with which to travel to Tehran. Perhaps not even a passport.

This is not an incidental point, because, at least insofar as the Nisman summary is concerned, the Kadir prosecution is the only concrete case, besides the AMIA bombing 13 years before, in which Nisman asserts Iranian responsibility for a specific terrorist plot and the only one in which the conspirators were arrested and actually convicted. However, if, in fact, the Iranians did not approve of, let alone provide support for, the JFK plot, the central thesis of Nisman’s latest report would seem deeply flawed.

Now, it may be that the report on which the FDD summary is based is far more coherent and provides a lot more detail. But frankly I found major parts of the narrative about Kadir presented in the summary rather difficult to believe. In fact, the entire summary aroused considerable scepticism in me, characterized as it was by breathtaking leaps of logic and history that leave yawning gaps in the analysis, highly tendentious argumentation, mind-numbing repetition of the major themes; and reliance on the testimony of discredited or highly questionable witnesses (see below) – all of which makes me wonder why Mr. Rotella throughout his article appears to accept the report’s allegations uncritically (just as he took at face value the testimonies of Mssrs. Berman and Humare).

The Nisman Report(s): a case of unreliable sources?

Indeed, there is strong reason to retain a high degree of scepticism regarding Nisman’s investigation. In that connection, I would like to draw your attention to the rather astonishing findings of my colleague, Gareth Porter, regarding Nisman’s 2006 indictment – an English copy of which has only recently become available — on the 1994 AMIA bombing. That report concluded that, at an August 1993 meeting in Mashad, top officials of the Iranian regime, including then-President Ali Hashemi Rafsanjani and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, ordered the bombing (whose alleged mastermind, Mohsen Rabbani, was the same man, according to the second Nisman report, was Kadir’s superior). Having reviewed the nearly 700-page English version, Mr. Porter, who won the 2011 Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism and also wrote an investigative article about the AMIA bombings for The Nation in 2008, was shocked to find that all of the evidence cited by the report regarding the purported 1993 meeting was based [4] on the testimony of four members of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), the political front for Mojahadin e-Khalq (MeK), the armed opposition group that allied itself with Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war and that was listed by the State Department as a terrorist group until last year when its leadership promised to cooperate in the repatriation of its members from Iraq to third countries. Even more remarkably, Nisman insisted that the fact that these witnesses were members of a group that had tried for decades to violently overthrow the Islamic Republic did not in any way affect their credibility. “The fact that the individuals are opponents of the Iranian regime does not detract in the least from the significance of their statements,” Nisman declared in his report, adding that their testimony could be trusted as “completely truthful.”

In the absence of any other concrete evidence and given the MEK’s history and credibility, Mr. Nisman acceptance of the word of its activists or Mesbahi regarding the Iranian leadership’s alleged authorization of the AMIA bombing raises very serious questions about the integrity of his investigation. Yet, remarkably, in the summary of Nisman’s latest report, Mesbahi and the MEK witnesses again figure prominently as witnesses regarding Iran’s alleged terrorist activities in Latin America. Which again raises the question: why hasn’t Mr. Rotella demonstrated the kind of skepticism toward Nisman’s work and conclusions that he has with respect to, say, the State Department’s most recent report on the alleged terrorist threats posed by Iran and Hezbollah activities in the Americas, especially given his own expertise about the attack? After all, if Iran was not involved in the AMIA bombing, nor in the Kadir case, what is left of Nisman’s thesis that the Iranian regime has been establishing “clandestine intelligence stations and operative agents which are used to execute terrorist attacks when the Iranian regime decides so…”?

One other point about the latest Nisman report that bears mentioning: the identity and associations of its most enthusiastic promoters, aside from FDD which published the English-language summary. According to a Nexis search of “Nisman” and “Iran,” the first releases announcing publication of the report in late May were put out by the American Jewish Committee, B’nai B’rith, and Rep. Ros-Lehtinen (who put out two other press releases on the report over the following three months, as did Rep. Duncan). Op-ed writers who have devoted by far the most space to the report in U.S. publications have been strongly pro-Israel and neoconservative in their political orientation. They include Mary Anastasia O’Grady, a member of the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board (“Uncovering Iran’s Latin Network”, June 3); WINEP’s Matthew Levitt [5] on (“Exporting Terror in America’s Backyard: Is the United State Downplaying the Threat from Iranian Agents in Latin America?” June 13; Douglas Farah (who testified before the Subcommittee) and FDD’s Mark Dubowitz in the Miami Herald (“Terror and Foreign Policy: Iran in Latin America,” June 26); AFPC’s Berman and Netanel Levitt on (“Terror Can Leak in Through America’s Borders,” July 15); the Hudson Institute’s Jaime Darenblum in the (“The Iranian Threat in Latin America”, July 15) and again in The Weekly Standard (“Terror Threat in Latin America,” Aug 15); and Aaron Sagui, the spokesman for the Israeli Embassy, in the Miami Herald (“AMIA Bombing: Truth Found, Stop Looking – Iran to Blame,” July 17). (Of course, Levitt, Farah, and Berman also testified at the subcommittee hearing.) In addition, an organization called the American Task Force Argentina (ATFA), which was created by a group of hedge funds – or “vulture capitalists,” according to their critics – who bought heavily discounted Argentine bonds and have sued the Argentine government in U.S. federal court to collect the bonds’ full value, has also taken out full-page ads in The Washington Post and other newspapers denouncing Argentina’s ties to Iran and extolling the Nisman reports and their findings about alleged Iranian terrorism. The group is led by Elliott Management whose chief executive is Paul Singer who, according to a recent article in Salon, contributed nearly 11 million dollars to FDD between 2008 and 2011, the latest year for which tax records are available.

Fernando Tabares

Clearly, you are much better informed about Tabares’ testimony in “the Argentine investigation” and any statements by a “second Colombian intelligence official” since you have read the full version of Nisman’s report in the original Spanish, while I have seen only the English summary. So I must defer to your judgment. But I would like to make the following few points:

1)    Shouldn’t the reader have been informed that Tabares was either facing or serving an eight-year prison sentence for breach of trust and illegal wire-tapping at the time that he gave his testimony? Isn’t that relevant to assessing his credibility as a source – especially given the vagueness of his statement as reported in the article (if not in the Nisman report itself)? Your response failed to address this question.

2)    Tabares, according to Adam Isacson, the Colombia expert at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), was not “the former director of Colombia’s intelligence agency,” as claimed by Mr. Rotella. He was the chief of a division of the Departamento Administrativo de Seguridad (DAS), the country’s civilian intelligence agency which, according to Mr. Isacson, is dwarfed in size by the country’s police and military intelligence agencies. The suggestion in the story that he was Colombia’s equivalent of the DNI is “misleading,” he told me. It may also be worth noting that, according to Mr. Isacson, Israeli intelligence is known to have a particularly close relationship with its Colombian counterparts, closer than any other South America country’s intelligence service.

3)    As you note, Mr. Rotella’s story names “the Argentine investigation” as the source of Tabares’ testimony, but you can see from the FDD Summary paper (p. 30) that he also “informed” the Colombian Supreme Court of Justice about alleged Iranian and Hezbollah activity, so it’s unclear in the article what testimony Mr. Rotella was referring to.

4)    Again, the Nisman summary regarding Tabares’ testimony makes a series of leaps – such as the notion that funds transferred to both Hezbollah and Al Qaeda from a Colombian city where an alleged Hezbollah operative allegedly maintains a residence came from the same source (the Hezbollah operative?) — that appears to be based as much or more on speculation than real evidence. Presumably the actual report provides some additional evidence on this and related issues.

Balanced? Seriously?

In your response to my critique, you claim that Mr. Rotella’s story was “far more balanced and restrained” than I had described it, and, it is true that I did not cite his quotation of the two-sentence conclusion of the unclassified appendix to the State Department report that was the subject of the Subcommittee’s hearing; nor did I cite the unnamed senior U.S. government official who defended it; nor Rep. Thompson’s quote (which Mr. Rotella immediately cast into doubt in his concluding sentence). But, frankly, I find the notion that the story overall had even a modicum of balance to be rather bizarre, to say the least.

As I understand it, the basic issue raised by the story (and the hearing) was whether or not the terror threat deriving from Iran’s and Hezbollah’s activities in Latin America was on the rise or not. That certainly was the subject of the hearing in question, as it was the subject of the latest Nisman report whose clear message was set out in the very first sentence of the report: that Iran has built a formidable infrastructure in Latin America that is “used to execute terrorist attacks …both directly or through its proxy, the terrorist organization Hezbollah.” Indeed the Nisman report, the hearing’s witnesses and its Republican convenors all appeared dedicated to refuting the State Department report and its conclusions – that Iranian influence, including, presumably, its alleged terrorist infrastructure and activities, was on the wane in Latin America.

So, if the story was “balanced,” one would expect there to be roughly the same number of sources on each side of the question: Is the Iranian/Hezbollah terrorist threat from Latin America rising or diminishing? But if we count up the number of sources on each side of that question, the results are really indisputable: the story is tilted almost entirely in favor of the former position and against the conclusions of the State Department’s report. Consider, for example, all of the “on-the-record” quotes by identified sources in the story: I counted eight (including the Committee and Subcommittee chairs, the DNI/Ros-Lehtinen quote, and the Nisman report quotes, among others) in the “rise” category and only two – the two sentences from the State Department report’s appendix and Rep. Thompson’s quote — on the “wane” side.

If we carry that quantitative analysis further to include background quotes by unidentified individuals (like “Western officials”) or sentences whose substantive content is attributed to a source (like the “Argentine investigation”, or “critics,” or “Argentine, Israeli, and U.S. investigators”, or the hearing witnesses, including Humire and Berman, the proportion is about the same: 26 tend to confirm the notion that Iranian activity – and hence the threat — is on the rise; only five suggest this may not be so. And that doesn’t include the story’s headline: “The Terror Threat and Iran’s Inroads in Latin America” and Mr. Rotella’s unattributed assertion: “The attacks in Buenos Aires in the 1990s revealed the existence of Iranian terror networks in the Americas.”

But putting aside the sources, both the article’s portentous opening about the secret meeting between the unidentified senior IRGC officer and his Venezulean interlocutors, as well as the ending in which Mr. Rotella reminds the reader that Chavez’s successor was the “point man for the alliance with Iran” when he served as foreign minister, appear intended to convey not only a sense of threat to the average American reader. It also makes it clear that, on the basic question raised by the article, the State Department’s report is wrong – a conclusion that is naturally bolstered by the article’s uncritical treatment that Mr. Rotella gives to the testimony of the hearing’s Republican sponsors, its witnesses, and the Nisman report, not to mention the DNI/Ros-Lehtinen’s misquote.

Moreover, your citation of the article’s assertion that there is “considerable debate inside and outside the U.S. government” about the extent and nature of Iran’s activities in Latin America as evidence of the story’s balance seems especially bizarre (unless you include Republicans in Congress as part of the “U.S. government”). On this very question, Mr. Rotella clearly takes sides. He thus quotes Rep. Duncan as stating, “We know there is not consensus on this issue, but I seriously question the administration’s judgment to downplay the seriousness of Iran’s presence here at home.” And then, later in the story, he notes that “State Department officials say the[ir] Iran report reflected a consensus among U.S. government agencies.”

So when Mr. Rotella introduces the subject by asserting flatly that there is “considerable debate inside …the U.S. government,” he is clearly siding with Rep. Duncan and against the State Department officials with whom he spoke. And, remarkably, he provides no additional evidence – in the form, for example, of either on-the-record or background quotes by senior officials of other government agencies who take issue with the State Department report’s conclusions — to support his and Rep. Duncan’s assertion that indeed there is considerable debate within the government.

When I asked the State Department about whether other U.S. government agencies cleared the report, a spokesperson told me the following by email:

“A team of seasoned career Department of State employees, in cooperation with experts from other USG agencies, crafted the report which in turn was based on and is fully consistent with the analysis and conclusion of the longer classified report prepared by the intelligence community.

Those members of Congress who read the entire report will see a thorough, whole-of-government review that incorporates the most current information available to the intelligence community, as well as diplomatic and open source information, regarding Iran’s activities in the hemisphere. In writing the report, the Department of State consulted with the Departments of Defense, Justice, Homeland Security and Treasury, along with the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Office of the United Trade Representative. We consulted extensively with regional and partner governments to obtain information contained in the report.” (Emphasis added.)”

I later asked an ODNI official who confirmed that his office had indeed been consulted.

Now, it may be that Mr. Rotella and Rep. Duncan are correct: that the extent and nature of Iran’s activities in Latin America are indeed the subject of considerable debate within the U.S. government. But where is the evidence that such a debate is taking place beyond the assertion of a highly partisan Republican congressman? Particularly when the State Department insists that its report is consistent with the conclusion of a longer classified report prepared by the intelligence community? I can’t find any in the article.

Anonymous Sources: Is it too much to ask that the nationality of sources be identified?

I agree with you that, in the field of intelligence – especially on an issue as sensitive as this – it is difficult to get officials to speak on the record, and I certainly agree that the recent leak investigations has contributed to a chilling effect that has made matters worse, at least insofar as the U.S. government is concerned. But my plea is for some precision in identifying who these officials are. I count six attributions or quotes in the article to “Western officials,” or “Western intelligence officials,” or “an intelligence official” who, in the context, is apparently one of the “Western officials” cited by Mr. Rotella. But, as noted above, Israeli officials, whose government clearly has an interest in promoting the specter of Iranian terrorism, often insist to reporters that they be described as “Western” officials. So the question arises: are these officials Israeli, American, French, British, German, Italian, Scandinavian, Canadian? In assessing the credibility of these assertions by “Western” officials, it’s clearly relevant to know what governments they work for. Given ProPublica’s and Mr. Rotella’s stature in investigative journalism, isn’t it possible to insist as a condition for quoting such officials or providing their accounts of alleged terrorist plotting that they be identified by their nationality? Particularly on an intelligence issue as fraught and politicized as this is? (I should note parenthetically, that, in his 2008 Nation article, Gareth Porter got two serving U.S. officials and one retired U.S. official – the ambassador to Argentina at the time of the AMIA bombing, James Cheek – not only to speak on the record, but also to publicly cast doubt on the theory that Iran was involved.) Of all news services, one would expect ProPublica to be particularly tough in dealing with sources who insist on anonymity as broad as “Western official.”

Your correction undermined the thesis of the article.

As I noted above, I was particularly disappointed by the way you glossed over the significance of the correction by simply referring to Mr. Berman’s gracious acknowledgment of responsibility. In doing so, you failed to address the fact that attributing to DNI Clapper what Rep. Ros-Lehtinen said about Iranian “platforms” for attacking the U.S. undermined the basic thesis of the article in important ways.

First, Rep. Ros-Lehtinen, a politician with no known expertise in intelligence and who, after all, has been among the foremost champions the late Orlando Bosch and Luis Posada Carriles – both of whom were heavily implicated in the 1976 mid-air bombing of a Cuban commercial airliner and other terrorist acts — has been probably the single-most aggressive promoter of the Nisman reports in the U.S. Congress. The ODNI, on the other hand, was consulted about the State Department report and presumably raised no serious objections to it. To suggest, as the corrected version of Mr. Rotella’s article does, that the views of DNI Clapper and Rep. Ros-Lehtinen on the question of Iranian terrorism in the Americas largely coincide is simply irresponsible.

Second, DNI Clapper is the only named “Western intelligence official” in the entire story, and his inclusion lends it a credibility that it would otherwise lack. But he never said anything about Iranian terrorist activities in Latin America; he confined his remarks to the Arbabsiar case about which, as I pointed out in my original critique, Mr. Rotella himself expressed considerable skepticism when the story first broke.

Third, if the thesis of the article, the Nisman report, and the witness testimony is correct – that Iran has built a formidable infrastructure for conducting terrorist attacks against the U.S. – why would the Quds Force feel it had to resort to recruiting a totally inexperienced, obviously unstable Iranian-American used-car salesman (whom the correction referred to as an “Iranian-American operative”) to make contact with the Zetas to arrange the assassination? It doesn’t make much sense on the face of it. And if Hezbollah, whose activists, according to a 2011 article by Mr. Rotella, have already been deeply involved with the Zeta cartel for years, why wouldn’t the IRGC have used its connections with its trusted ally/client (which carried out the AMIA bombing with such success) to make the appropriate arrangements either through its relationship with the Zetas or with its own “sleeper cells” which Mr. Nisman and others insist are already in place throughout the United States? As written, the correction clearly begs all of these questions.

Finally, as to whether I think Mr. Rotella is pushing an ideological agenda, I have no idea since it would take a serious  study of the entire corpus of his work to answer such a question. With respect to this particular article (or the corrected version, at least), however, he appears to have more or less accepted the narrative of the Republican sponsors of the July 9 hearing, the hearing’s witnesses, and Rep. Ros-Lehtinen, a right-wing politician who is not known for her neutrality relating to Iran, Venezuela, or terrorism. I think it also showed a surprising credulousness and lack of curiosity for an investigative journalist of Mr. Rotella’s experience and stature that, in my view, appeared inconsistent with ProPublica’s other work, but whether that is explained by ideological preferences or other factors I cannot say. Again, I would refer to Dr. Pillar’s critique of the article, since, as a former top-ranking professional intelligence analyst specialized in counter-terrorism and the Middle East, his critique would be far more informed than mine.

I have no doubt that I have tried your patience exceedingly, but I think your response to my original critique deserved a thorough reply, and I have tried to provide one. Again, I apologize for its delay but hope you will consider it seriously.

Best regards,


[1] Except for the Arbabsiar case, Iranian activities in the Americas were never mentioned in the briefing despite its “worldwide” scope.

[2] As Tom Detzel knows, I have tried to obtain a copy of the full 502-page report from the Argentine authorities, including from Mr. Nisman’s office, but have thus been unsuccessful.

[3] It bears mentioning that a just-released and quite alarmist report by the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) on alleged Iranian terrorism makes no mention of the Kadir case, nor, for that matter of the 2007 Baku plot.

[4] Nisman also cited testimony about a 1993 meeting by Iran’s leadership that allegedly approved the AMIA bombing by Abdolghassem Mesbahi, a former Iranian intelligence officer who defected in 1988 (six years before the bombing), although he did not provide the specific details provided by the MEK witnesses . Mesbahi, however, has made a number of charges that he has later retracted or been found to be untrue, such as that Iran was behind both the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the Lockerbie bombing; and that it paid former Argentine President Carlos Menem via a Swiss bank account of $10 million bribe to disrupt the AMIA investigation — a charge that a Swiss court later dismissed. After Nisman’s AMIA indictment was published in 2006, the former head of the FBI’s Hezbollah office, James Bernazzani, told Gareth that U.S. intelligence considered Mesbahi desperate for money and ready to “provide testimony to any country on any case involving Iran.”

[5] Matthew Levitt was quoted in Mr. Rotella’s 2008 article on Azerbaijan, the subject of my previous post. Seemingly a favorite source of Mr. Rotella and vice versa, Levitt appears to rely very heavily on Israeli counter-terrorism officials for his information. In an April 29, 2013, article published by West Point’s Counter-Terrorism Center entitled “Hizb Allah Resurrected: The Party of God’s Return to Tradecraft”, he cited interviews with Israeli counterterrorism or intelligence officials in no less than 15 of 37 footnotes on sources. All other sources are published articles or on-the-record briefings. He also cited Mr. Rotella’s work in seven footnotes.

Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe served for some 30 years as the Washington DC bureau chief for Inter Press Service and is best known for his coverage of U.S. foreign policy and the influence of the neoconservative movement.


One Comment

  1. ProPublica is a mainstream journal posing as an independent investigative journal. Its prizes have been received from the mainstream media and are worth even less that Barack Obama’s Nobel Prize. (Think of a judge sitting on the Board of Directors of a corporation whose case it is hearing.) So, while its branding and the PR from these prizes may give it visibility, the publication lacks credibility. If over time, the American people start to inform themselves a little better about what the government and special interests, foreign or domestic are doing versus.what they are selling through the MSM and ProPublica, ProPublica will be seen for what it really is.

    In the meantime, Jim, keep telling us like it is.

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