ProPublica’s Response To My Post On Rotella’s Iran in LatAm Work

by Jim Lobe

Following the publication last month of my post, “ProPublica and the Fear Campaign Against Iran”, I sent an email message to Stephen Engelberg, ProPublica’s editor-in-chief, drawing his attention to my critique of Sebastian’s Rotella’s article, “The Terror Threat and Iran’s Inroads in Latin America”, published by ProPublica on July 11 and corrected on July 18. The correction was apparently the result of my inquiry to the office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) (which likely led the DNI to alert ProPublica in one way or another) regarding a key misattribution to DNI James Clapper of a quote by Florida Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. I also asked Mr. Engelberg to consider issuing two other corrections of what I viewed as errors of fact contained in Mr. Rotella’s article.

The following is the exchange of messages between Mr. Engelberg and me (which has also been published in the Comments sections of both the original ProPublica article and my critique of it). Depending on time constraints and unforeseen events, such as today’s bloodshed and violence in Egypt, which require me to write articles for IPS, I also intend to respond to Mr. Engelberg’s reply both with respect to the specific points he makes and to the broader issues regarding Mr. Rotella’s coverage of alleged Iran/Hezbollah-related terrorism. Let me add that I am gratified that, given all of his responsibilities, Mr. Engelberg took the time and effort to respond to my comments, and I hope the dialogue will continue.

From: Jim Lobe, IPS 

Sent: Tuesday, July 30, 2013 1:20 PM

To: Stephen Engelberg
Subject: Rotella on Iran terrorist infrastructure in Latin America

Hi Mr. Engelberg:

Please forgive my presumptuousness in addressing this directly to you, but I couldn’t find anyone else, such as an ombudsman, to whom to address this complaint. My name is Jim Lobe, and I’ve served as the Washington DC bureau chief for Inter Press Service ( for almost three decades.

I refer to Mr. Rotella’s article published July 11, “The Terror Threat and Iran’s Inroads in Latin America,” for which ProPublica has already issued one important correction regarding the misattribution of a quotation by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen to DNI James Clapper.

I published a lengthy critique (including the misattribution) of Mr. Rotella’s article on my blog ( on July 18, just a few hours after the correction was issued and 24 hours after I had alerted the DNI’s press office to its existence. (The critique can be found at In addition to the misattribution, I also noted at least two major factual errors in the story – including the characterization of an individual convicted in a terrorist plot 2010 as a “longtime intelligence operative for Iran” and the assertion that Iran was the top source of illegal migrants to Canada – neither of which has been corrected by ProPublica.

If you have the patience to read the critique, you will see that these factual errors and misattributions, at least in my view, have been symptomatic of larger problems regarding Mr. Rotella’s reporting on Iran/Hezbollah/terrorism-related issues, problems which some of my colleagues and I have noticed for some time and about which they may be writing more for the blog. You will also see that, at least in the case of this specific article, a very highly regarded former top intelligence official with expertise on Iran and the Middle East, Paul Pillar, shared some of our views. In case you don’t have the patience to read the critique, this is what he sent me by email after reading Mr. Rotella’s article:

“The article certainly seems to be an effort 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. Almost all of the specifics that get into anything like possible terrorist activities are old. The Iranian efforts to make diplomatic friends in Latin America by cozying up with the regimes in Venezuela and elsewhere that have an anti-U.S. streak is all well known, but none of that adds up to an increase in clandestine networks or a terrorist threat. The closest the article gets in that regard is with very vague references to Venezuela being used by “suspected Middle Eastern operatives” and the like, which of course demonstrates nothing as far as Iran specifically is concerned. Sourcing to an unnamed “intelligence officer” is pretty meaningless.”

Assuming that Mr. Pillar used his best professional judgment in making this assessment, I would think that ProPublica should be quite concerned about his view – especially the reference to the use of “innuendo” in the story – if not so impressed with mine. Innuendo, I’m sure you will agree, is not something ProPublica would ever want to be associated with, especially on such an issue of such importance to U.S. foreign policy.

In any event, I hope that ProPublica would consider issuing the additional corrections of fact noted above.

Given ProPublica’s very important mission and work, as well as your own many contributions to excellent journalism, I would be very gratified to hear back from you on this.

Thanks for your time and consideration.

Best regards,


—–Original Message—– 

From: Stephen Engelberg
Sent: Aug 4, 2013 11:11 AM
To: “Jim Lobe, IPS”
Cc: Tom Detzel
Subject: RE: Rotella on Iran terrorist infrastructure in Latin America

Dear Jim,
Thanks for the note. The editor handling this coverage has been away and unreachable for the past week. He reviewed your lengthy critique before he left. We will be in touch with you next week with some further thoughts. We have reviewed the two factual issues you raised in addition to the misattribution and we respectfully do not think either merits a correction. I am copying our editor, Tom Detzel, on this note

Steve Engelberg

From: Jim Lobe
Sent: Sunday, August 04, 2013 2:10 PM
To: Stephen Engelberg
Cc: Jim Lobe
Subject: RE: Rotella on Iran terrorist infrastructure in Latin America

Thanks for your note.

Of course, I respectfully disagree with your decision regarding the correction (if, for no other reason, than readers will now believe that Iran is the biggest source of illegal migrants toCanada unless they dig deeper), but that obviously is not my decision. In any event, the larger issue about the use of anonymous or clearly interested sources, particularly amid a clear campaign to persuade Americans that Iran poses such a compelling national security threat that we should prepare for war against it, is far more important.

Unfortunately, I am currently in Seattle and will be spending much of the coming week in the mountains , but I will be back in DC the following week if that would work. As I noted in my little but lengthy essay, we may shortly be publishing a bit more about Mr. Rotella’s work and sources, but I look forward to any further communication.

I hope you’re in as beautiful a climate and topography as I am at the moment.

Best regards,


—–Original Message—–
From: Stephen Engelberg
Sent: Aug 5, 2013 12:02 PM
To: Jim Lobe
Subject: RE: Rotella on Iran terrorist infrastructure in Latin America


Strangely enough, I’m in Portland right now so I’ve been able to at least match the climate.



From: Stephen Engelberg 

Sent: Monday, August 12, 2013 10:09 AM
To: Jim Lobe
Subject: RE: Rotella on Iran terrorist infrastructure in Latin America


We’ve reviewed your critique of our story, “The Terror Threat and Iran’s Inroads to Latin America,” and the two issues you raised in an email to Steve Engelberg requesting corrections. We’re certainly not averse to correcting when warranted. In this instance we’ve decided that’s not required.

First, you say we misreported Joseph Humire’s testimony about Iranian migrants going toCanada. In fact, Humire’s testimony states that Iran is the number one source of improperly documented migrants (i.e., illegally entering on false, altered, stolen or improperly obtained travel documents), most of whom seek refugee status when they arrive. Citing the Canadian border services agency, his testimony stated that most of those Iranian migrants arrived via Latin America from 2009 to 2011, and that the majority passed through Caracas. This is what we reported in our brief mention of his testimony. Nowhere did we say there is a “flood” of Iranian operatives into Canada, as you wrote. We spoke to Mr. Humire. He said our story was an accurate account of his testimony, which was not solely based on the report by the Canadian border services agency, but on his conversations with Canadian border officials who are concerned about the Iranian migrant issue. He said this accounts for differences in wording between his testimony and the report, which states that Latin America was the primary last embarkation point for Iranian migrants in 2009 and 2010. As you noted, the report also states that the flow subsequently shifted to Western Europe, although Caracas and Mexico City remain significant embarkation points.

Second, you dispute the section stating that the trial of Abdul Kadir, convicted in the 2007 JFK terror plot, revealed that he was a longtime intelligence operative for Iran. According to a Justice Department news release about his sentencing to life in prison, however, “Kadir, a former member of the Guyanese parliament, admitted that he regularly passed information to Iranian authorities about sensitive topics, including the Guyanese military, and believed himself bound to follow fatwas from Iranian religious leaders.” Furthermore, the full 502-page report by Argentine prosecutor Alberto Nisman into Iran’s activities inLatin America further explores the evidence that Kadir was an Iranian operative. The Nisman report cites the U.S. court file and testimony to Argentine prosecutors by witnesses including New York Joint Terrorism Task Force investigator Robert Addonizio, who testified that Kadir “worked for the Iranian government and provided it with intelligence information about Guyana” and that Kadir’s activities “were those of a spy.”  You have a different view of the nature of Kadir’s relationship with Iran, but our account of the assessments of the U.S. and Argentine authorities is accurate.

Your blog raises other complaints, but in fact the story is far more balanced and restrained than your portrayal. Among other things, it prominently states that there is “considerable debate inside and outside the U.S. government” about the extent and nature of Iranian influence in Latin America. The story also quotes a senior U.S. government official in support of the State Department’s conclusion that Iranian influence is actually waning. And it reports Rep. Bennie Thompson’s opinion that the death of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez had weakened Iranian ties. You failed to mention any of those points in your post.

Regarding the correction of Director Clapper’s remarks, you are already aware that the mistake stemmed from an error in testimony by Ilan Berman. Upon learning from a government official of a potential misattribution, we contacted Mr. Berman. He graciously acknowledged responsibility for the error, so we immediately corrected and updated the story.

We agree that anonymous sources should be used sparingly, with discretion and with full awareness of the potential for officials to use the cloak of anonymity for political purposes. That said, it seems wholly unrealistic to presume that people in the U.S. government or elsewhere would discuss classified information on the record. We note that your own stories cite anonymous sources, several of whom do not appear to be risking their security clearances. Your recent posts quote unnamed “U.S. officials”, a “lobbyist”, an “insider”, a “well-connected Congressional staffer” and “one Washington veteran.” As you are no doubt aware, an unprecedented number of criminal leak investigations has cast a significant chill on government sources. Front-line officials and others involved in national security cases often will not speak on the record about sensitive information if it jeopardizes their safety, their career or an important investigation.

At the same time, when our story cites, by name, the testimony of former Colombian intelligence chief Fernando Tabares about alleged Iranian terrorist activity, you describe the information as “purported” and “of unknown origin.” This is perplexing, as the story clearly names “the Argentine investigation” as the source of Tabares’ testimony, which can be found on pages 474 and 475 of the Nisman report along with information from a second Colombian intelligence official. We have reviewed the full version of Nisman’s report in the original Spanish. We also note that Sebastian Rotella has considerable independent expertise about the AMIA attack, which he began covering in the mid-1990s when he was based in Argentina.

Finally, your insinuations about an ideological agenda are simply without merit and are debunked by any number of stories by Rotella, who has a proven and esteemed record of unbiased, revealing and incisive reporting. We have full confidence in his competence and professionalism.

/s/ The Editors,


Photo Credit: Prensa Miraflore 

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. Correct me if I’m wrong here, but hasn’t the story about Iran terrorist actions in Latin America been debunked? Further hasn’t it been also shown that the Israeli Mossad was involved in operations there? It seems that they have been in various parts of the world, creating chaos, blaming Iran for the actions.

    I’m not trying to take sides here, but I’ve noticed a change in the way ProPublica presents the features,. that used to be independent of party bias, but today seem to be favorable to the “O” administration, as in a favorite outlet for them. All things considered, the “O” Government has inflicted more damage upon the American public & the Country, then the Bush did. The present Israeli/Palestine peace talks are a case in point. That Israel has slapped the “O” in the face with the intention of building more housing settlements, thereby limiting again the land for the Palestinians to live on. This present round of so called peace talks, is more “KABUKI” with Israel laughing while the Palestinians are crying. Where is ProPublicas response? I used to subscribe to P.P. until they became a shill for the “O” Government. We are losing more independent news blogs/outlets due to this destruction of rights in the U.S.A. When the Empire falls, it will deserve it.

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