The Exchange with ProPublica Continues…

by Jim Lobe

For those of you who have followed the recent exchanges between myself and ProPublica, another one took place following the publication of Gareth’s piece on Sebastian Rotella’s coverage of an alleged Iranian/Hezbollah plot to blow up the Israeli Embassy in Baku, Azerbaijan in 2008. Tom Detzel of ProPublica initially responded in the comments section to that story, but the issues he raises are significant enough to warrant a separate post with responses from Gareth, myself and Tom’s reply.

Tom Detzel says:
August 22, 2013 at 12:52 pm

Though your latest “essay” focuses on a story by Sebastian Rotella while he was at the Los Angeles
Times, editors at ProPublica feel compelled to respond.

Careful readers will see that you misrepresent the breadth of sourcing in Sebastian’s reporting on the Baku case. On point after point, you rely on nothing more than supposition and generalizations about what is “plausible” or not. You repeatedly quote a sole source, Mr. Valiyev, whose views conveniently conform with your agenda. Yet, even then, you undercut your own argument by citing his opinion that the Hezbollah operatives convicted in the plot may have been “simply spies working for Iranian intelligence.”

Although you seem to believe that terrorist activity in Azerbaijan is purely a concoction of the authorities, U.S. embassy officials reacted very seriously to another alleged Iranian plot targeting them last year, as detailed in a Washington Post report.

Regarding bias in coverage of Iran, we note that Mr. Porter last year strongly suggested that a car-bomb attack injuring the wife of an Israeli diplomat and others was perpetrated by Israel to cast suspicion on Iran. In other words, Israel would bomb its own diplomats for political gain.


We stand behind Mr. Rotella’s work.

/s/ The editors

Gareth Porter says:
August 22, 2013 at 3:02 pm 

My article discusses at least nine substantive points raising serious questions about the alleged plot and Mr. Detzel doesn’t offer a substantive response to a single one of them. He doesn’t respond to the central point that Rotella doesn’t cite any Azerbaijani source, which means that he has no real political context in which to evaluate the story being spun by the self-interested sources he consulted — except to attack my source as presumably biased.

Since he refuses to engage in argumentation on the specifics, Mr. Detzel’s main point seems to be that it is not legitimate to analyze critically the official account of an alleged terrorist plot in terms of plausibility — even if the account is veers off into the quite fanciful tales like the alleged Iranian desire to attack on Russia’s radar base in Azerbaijan. Is there really no place for introducing plausibility –- based on an understanding of the larger context — in investigative journalism, Mr. Detzel? Unfortunately that appears from his defense of Rotella’s account to represent the philosophy of ProPublica.

I do not know by what logic it undercuts the critique of Rotella’s unquestioning acceptance of the official line to cite the view of prominent national security analysts in Azerbaijan that it was more plausible that the people charged were involved in espionage rather than terrorism.

And it is notable that Mr. Detzel argues only that the United States took a later alleged plot seriously, not that it took the alleged 2008 plot seriously. That argument does undercut Mr. Detzel’s defense of Rotella.

Mr. Detzel then tries his hand at ad hominem attacking my piece on the New Delhi bombing. But his attack deliberately misrepresents what I said, albeit in a clever manner. He complains that I concluded that “Israel would bomb its own diplomats for political gain.” What I actually wrote in AlJazeera on March 2, 2012, however, was that the evidence from official investigators showed four distinct indicators strongly suggesting that “the operation was planned so that the passenger in the car would not be injured.” An attack on a different article that misrepresents its essential point is an indicator that the attacker is on very weak ground indeed.

From: Jim Lobe, IPS
Sent: Friday, August 23, 2013 3:37 PM
To: Tom Detzel
Cc: ‘Stephen Engelberg’
Subject: from jim lobe

Hi Tom:

Thanks again for your comment. As you can see, we’ve published it, and I passed it along to Gareth who, in any case, has posted his own reaction.

For myself, I’d just like to quickly respond to your points in the order in which you presented them.

1) Mr. Rotella reported the story for the LA Times, but, as Gareth pointed out in his post, he later asserted the alleged plot as fact in an article written for ProPublica and published at

2) We did not misrepresent the breadth of sourcing in Mr. Rotella’s reporting on the Baku case. Apart from “the authorities”, there are only two sources for the details of the alleged plot and the apprehension of the alleged plotters: “an Israeli security official” and Matthew Levitt of WINEP. Aside from that, there are references to “anti-terrorism officials” and “officials familiar with the investigation,” who, as was noted in the post, might or might not be Israeli themselves; it’s unclear. The only other named source in the entire story is Magnus Ranstorp, but he doesn’t offer any information with respect to the specific plot in Baku. The same goes for the “European, Israeli and U.S. officials” who, while alleging that the Mughniyah assassination “spurred into action a secret apparatus teaming Iranian intelligence with Hezbollah’s external operations unit,” make no specific connection to the Baku case. Thus, on the specifics of the plot and how far it had allegedly advanced, Rotella cites only two sources aside from “the authorities.” That’s not much breadth, either in quantity or in viewpoint.

3) I’m not sure I understand your point about supposition and generalization, but “plausibility” is an important factor in assessing a story provided by an intelligence service that declines to speak on the record and that may have an interest in persuading a reporter of its veracity. Generally, when one lacks the resources to “prove” one thing or another, one relies, among other things, on common sense, or plausibility. Is it plausible, for example, that Iranians are the biggest source of undocumented immigrants to Canada, as asserted by Mr. Rotella in his recent account of Mr. Humire’s testimony? My answer to that question was no, and, after a few minutes of research, I found that I was right and Iran is not the biggest source of undocumented immigrants to Canada. Is it plausible that Iranian/Hezbollah terrorists would want to blow up both the Israeli Embassy in Baku “AND” a Russian radar station 100 miles away? It seems pretty clear from the embassy cable cited in Gareth’s story that U.S. officials there didn’t think so.

4) Yes, Gareth’s post does indeed rely heavily on Mr. Valiyev, as we don’t have the resources to identify and interview more Azerbaijani experts on its foreign relations. But he clearly has some credibility with the Jamestown Foundation and, a very reputable news service sponsored by the Open Society Institute, or they presumably wouldn’t publish his work. And, as Dean of the School of International Affairs of the AzerbaijanDiplomatic Academy, he appears to be a pretty good local source, if for no other reason than his writings and comments are not exactly consistent with the official line of a rather authoritarian government. Given his publications, he was not hard to track down. Apart from local human rights activists, he was also the only seemingly credible, easily accessible independent Azerbaijani source who has written in English about this particular plot, as well as others like it.

5) As to whether Valiyev’s views “conveniently conform with (our) agenda,” I think you owe it to us to describe what you think that agenda is, rather than resort to innuendo. (Using your logic, what it does it say about Mr. Rotella’s “agenda,” that his major – if not exclusive – sources for the details of the alleged plot were an Israeli security official and Matthew Levitt who works for a well-known pro-Israel think tank and whose writings reveal a heavy reliance on Israeli counter-terrorism sources?) Speaking for myself only, my “agenda” in engaging ProPublica on all of this is to ensure as much as I can that the reporting on alleged Iranian malfeasance around the world – especially by an investigative news agency as important as ProPublica — is as accurate and careful as possible lest the United States find itself drifting or driven into another disastrous war in the Middle East by interested and highly motivated parties, such as those that were remarkably successful in manipulating the press and public opinion into believing that Saddam Hussein posed an imminent and lethal threat to the U.S. and its allies in the run-up to the Iraq invasion as a result of his fictional WMD programs and his fictional ties to Al Qaeda. That’s my agenda.

6) I’m personally willing to accept the notion that the individuals involved in the alleged plot were indeed “spies working for Iranian intelligence,” but “spies” may or may not be terrorists. A spy, as I understand it, is someone who acts as a source of information, especially information that the target wants to keep secret. A terrorist is someone who carries out violent attacks against civilian targets for a political purpose. They are not the same thing, and I think that distinction is a very important one, especially when talking about Iranian activities in Latin America or elsewhere.

7) I don’t really know how to respond to your supposition that “I believe terrorist activity in Azerbaijan is purely a concoction of the authorities.” I don’t necessarily believe that it is a concoction, although Valiyev’s observations about the perennial appearance of such plots – combined with the extraordinary surveillance practices of the regime (to which I can testify from personal experience) – suggests that he believes such reports warrant a healthy dose of skepticism. (And he’s the dean of the School of International Affairs of the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Activity!) But a close examination of the Post story raises some of the same questions about sourcing — notably the heavy reliance on “Middle Eastern security officials” and a “Middle East investigator involved in the case” for the details of a plot which was allegedly uncovered “after a foreign spy agency intercepted electronic messages that appeared to describe plans to move weapons and explosives from Iran into Azerbaijan” — as we raised regarding Mr. Rotella’s account of the alleged 2008 plot. The main difference is that Warrick gave more prominence to U.S. government sources, although the one quote from a U.S. source about the plot raises doubts about alleged coordination betweenIran and Hezbollah in terrorist activities (a notion that Mr. Rotella over the years has appeared to accept without question). But, assuming that there have since been trials against those accused in all of these alleged plots, would it not be “plausible” that more details about them would have been reported? And, because U.S. government officials said they believed that plots were indeed underway, should investigative reporters accept their assertions as necessarily true? And, assuming for the sake of argument that there really was such a plot as described in the Post in 2011, does that necessarily mean that the alleged 2008 plot was real and “in the advanced stages,” as Levitt asserted? I’m prepared to give it some evidentiary weight, but not much.

I am, however, perfectly prepared to believe that Iran has conducted covert actions, including hatching terrorist plots, in Azerbaijan. Iran is indeed very angry and suspicious about Azerbaijan’s increasingly tight intelligence and military relations with Israel. (See, for example, Mark Perry’s investigative article, “Israel’s Secret Staging Ground,”in last year.) But I also expect investigative reporting which has, as its disposal, the talent, resources, access, and expertise of the Post and especially of ProPublica to marshal stronger evidence and a wider variety of sources (especially independent and indigenous sources, such as Mr. Valiyev, as well as academic experts who specialize in the relevant country) in support of that thesis than what I’ve seen to date. (For example, it completely bewilders me why, given Mr. Rotella’s expertise in terrorism, he has never to my knowledge used Dr. Pillar, who is easily accessible by the press, as a source for his coverage of Iranian and Hezbollah terrorism given Dr. Pillar’s service as chief of analysis and later as deputy director of the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center (CTC) during the 1990s and as the National Intelligence Officer for the Middle East and South Asia from 2000 to 2005.)

8) As to last year’s car-bomb attack in India, I personally am agnostic on the question of responsibility. But Gareth, who has clearly spent time and effort researching this, has raised some important questions regarding that incident, just as he did in his 2008 Nation article about the AMIA bombing and, more recently, about the astonishing fact that Alberto Nisman, the Argentine prosecutor in charge of investigating the AMIA bombing appears to have based his indictment of seven top Iranian leaders, including then-president Ali Hashemi Rafsanjani, for the atrocity entirely on the testimony of four members of the Mujahedin e-Khalq (MEK).

Look, Tom, despite what you might think, I’m not out to “get” Mr. Rotella, who is clearly a gifted writer and, insofar as I’ve been able to skim through some of his non-Iran/Hezbollah writing (I still have actual clippings of articles he wrote for the LAT in the 90’s in my file cabinets), has done really fine work in his career. Nor am I trying to attack ProPublica, which I consider an extremely valuable initiative. I explained my “agenda” in point 5 above. I don’t think that agenda is unreasonable under the circumstances, and it’s in pursuit of that agenda that I hope to soon reply to your response to my critique of Mr. Rotella’s article on alleged Iranian terrorist activities in the Americas.

If you should wish to speak further about this, I am always available.

From: Tom Detzel
Sent: Friday, August 23, 2013 5:51 PM
To: Jim Lobe, IPS
Subject: RE: from jim lobe

Thanks Jim.

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.



  1. Jim & Gareth- This reader, at least, is greatly appreciative of the care you’ve exercised in analyzing these specific incidents. Seeing the standards you’ve applied, and how you’ve applied them to vet sources, in order to reach as a truthful narrative as possible, is not only a good clinic for young journalists, but also a good one for older readers who just want to separate truth from sloppy journalism or propaganda.

  2. I second the above by edding, as well as saying that those blog/newsletters here in the U.S., seem to link to the P.R. that the government hands out, whether by fear of losing contacts, or just because of being lazy. That it seems there is no investigating on the part of the editors other than who wrote the story, such as “will it play to the base- gullible- readers here, the days of true investigatory journalism is on the low side. When you consider that the administration is going after such as well as the whistle blowers too, with a vengeance, it proves that the administration is up to no good, as far as the American people are concerned. Likewise, the sycophantic press/bloggers, who toe the official line. They are complicit in the disinformation that’s fed to the people every day. One might call them co-conspirators in the big lie. Granted this is my opinion, but having lived through the many years that I have, on the many levels too, I believe I speak from a good point of understanding. No, I’m not going to cite my experience, for I’m not the one that this is about. Sloppy journalism whether by the author or the publisher, is who this is about.

  3. great discussion, and it describes your ethic very well. Sadly, so much reporting has become stenography. I’m troubled by the Syria reporting which offers an intentionally one sided view. We know how incorrigible lawyers are, but at least when they speak, we know who’s paying them–but “experts” on TV seldom disclose their ties. But, it’s clear that those who see war as the solution to every problem are simply pushing product–literally WARMONGERS

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