Ross is the guy who breathlessly announced that he had the phone records of Deborah Jeane Palfrey—a.k.a. the Washington Madam—only to come up with the names of two lousy low-level clients in a much-hyped sweeps-month 20/20 investigation that went nowhere. For years he relied on Alexis Debat—an ABC News consultant who was revealed in 2007 to have concocted fake interviews with American politicians for publication in a French journal—for stories ranging from secret U.S. operations in Iran to Americans joining the Taliban. (ABC News says those stories were still true.) He's the guy who reported inaccurately in 2001, in the aftermath of the anthrax attacks, that the anthrax letters contained a "potent additive...known to have been used by only one country in producing biochemical weapons - Iraq." And he's the guy who, just last week, falsely accused Robert F. Kennedy Jr. of calling Barack Obama an "indentured servant" to the coal industry by taking a quote from his interview with Kennedy dramatically out of context.
Now Ross has drawn the ire of the New York Times for his 2007 exclusive reportfeaturing former CIA agent John Kiriakou, who came forward on the record to confirm that the CIA had waterboarded suspected terrorist Abu Zubaydah. Kiriakou pointedly used the word "torture" to describe the process but insisted that it was exceedingly limited, and that it worked—Zubaydah started cooperating after one 30-second session, Kiriakou told Ross.
As the New York Times' Brian Stelter and Scott Shane point out, Kiriakou was either lying or didn't know what he was talking about. According to the Department of Justice Office of Legal Counsel memos released this month, Zubaydah was waterboarded 83 times.
Ross' story, the Times reports, "heightened the public perception of waterboarding as an effective interrogation technique" and "ricocheted around the media," leading Rush Limbaugh to proclaim: "It works, is the bottom line. Thirty to 35 seconds, and it works." What didn't ricochet around the media was the fact that the torture occurred in Thailand, and Kiriakou was sitting at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va.:
But lost in much of the coverage was the fact that Mr. Kiriakou had no firsthand knowledge of the waterboarding: He was not actually in the secret prison in Thailand where Mr. Zubaydah had been interrogated but in the C.I.A. headquarters in Northern Virginia. He learned about it only by reading accounts from the field.
On "World News," ABC included only a caveat that Mr. Kiriakou himself "never carried out any of the waterboarding." Still, he told ABC that the actions had "disrupted a number of attacks, maybe dozens of attacks." A video of the interview was no longer on ABC's website.
Ross never claimed that Kiriakou was in the room when Zubaydah was tortured, but if his viewers had known that Kiriakou was on the other side of the planet when it was happening, they may not have fallen so hard for his bland lie that it only happened once, briefly, and that it worked.
In Ross' defense, when you are writing about the CIA and top secret intelligence programs, a certain margin for error has to be built in to the equation. Sure, Kiriakou didn't know what he was talking about. But he was a CIA officer, he did have access to intelligence about Zubaydah, and he was willing to talk. Who wouldn't put him on TV? You're only as good, the saying goes, as your sources.
Brian Ross' problem is that he often has shitty sources. Kiriakou, Debat, whoever was telling him that Iraq was behind the anthrax attacks. ABC News and others defend him as a hard-working reporter with many important stories and awards under his belt—including a Polk-award-winning December 2005 report that named Poland and Romania as the locations of the CIA "black sites" that the Washington Post had uncovered a month before. But at least one former colleague says he's just gullible.
"Ross has a reputation for being able to be spun, because he's so desperate for stories," a former ABC Newser tells Gawker. "If he has one source for something, and he seems trustworthy, he'll go with it. The New York Times' investigative guys say, 'We never take anything Brian Ross reports with anything less than a pound of salt.'"
Indeed, according to another knowledgable source Gawker spoke with, Kiriakou was in talks with at least one other reporter around the time Ross lined him up for the exclusive. The other reporter didn't trust Kiriakou—for one thing, he was willing to meet in the open, in public places, which suggested that the information he was offering wasn't all that valuable—and passed him by. But Ross bit.
ABC News has issued a fierce defense of the Kiriakou story, disputing the Times' claim that Ross underplayed the fact that Kiriakou had no direct knowledge of the waterboarding and pointing out the three occasions on which the Times itself relied on Ross' story.
And ironically, in reporting on Ross' latest episode of gullibility, it appears as though the Times has left itself open to charges of cooking a story. The Times' Stelter and Shane quoted former Human Rights Watch lawyer John Sifton high up in their piece accusing the press of "sanitizing" the torture program by running with stories like Kiriakou's claims. But it turns out that, while Sifton did say the press coverage tended to sanitize torture, Sifton says he also repeatedly defended Ross to Stelter, telling him that Ross shouldn't be singled out for getting details of a highly secretive program wrong.
"Placing blame on ABC News is unfair and nonsensical, and for the New York Times in particular it is hypocritical," Sifton wrote today in an angry letter to Times public editor Clark Hoyt. "Mr. Kiriakou's account given on ABC News was hardly the first time a media company has quoted CIA officials providing rosier-than-reality accounts of interrogations.... [F]or the Times in particular to focus on the Kiriakou story is downright nutty. If it is a crime to cite uncritically Mr. Kiriakou's accounts of Abu Zubaydah's supposed 30-second waterboarding, then the Times is just as guilty as ABC News. This is because the New York Times itself interviewed and cited Mr. Kiriakou in a June 2008 article by Scott Shane about CIA interrogations, which focused on CIA analyst and interrogator Deuce Martinez — a point Mr. Stelter didn't mention."
Sifton also takes Stelter to task for initially claiming that his story was about the media's treatment of the torture issue in general, and not Ross' story specifically. Sifton, who says Ross is as good a reporter as you can be when it comes to covering CIA activities under a veil of secrecy, says he told Stelter specifically that it would be unfair to single out Ross when any number of other reporters have made similar mistakes. "I didn't know that this story was going to be a hatchet job on Brian Ross," he told Gawker.
Ross is working on a follow-up to his Kiriakou story, and for the time being ABC News has appended an update to the story on the web:
U.S. Government documents released in April 2009 indicate that Kiriakou's account that Abu Zubaydah broke after only one water boarding session was incorrect. According to a footnote in newly released, previously classified "Top Secret" memos, the CIA used the water board "at least 83 times during August 2002 in the interrogation of Zubaydah."
Following the release of the documents, Kiriakou said: "When I spoke to ABC News in December 2007 I was aware of Abu Zubaydah being water boarded on one occasion. It was after this one occasion that he revealed information related to a planned terrorist attack. As I said in the original interview, my information was second-hand. I never participated in the use of enhanced techniques on Abu Zubaydah or on any other prisoner, nor did I witness the use of such techniques."