ABC News' Brian Ross has a breathtaking record of recklessly inaccurate, overhyped stories that don't live up to the headline. His scoop yesterday about Nidal Malik Hasan's "attempt to reach out to al Qaeda" was one of them.
Ross' report yesterday that Hasan had attempted to "make contact with people associated with al Qaeda" took over the internet yesterday and sparked a furious round of speculation that Hasan's attack was part of an Islamic terrorist plot. The headline, "Officials: U.S. Army Told of Hasan's Contacts with al Qaeda," said it all. The far more mundane truth emerged today in the pages of the New York Times and the Washington Post: Hasan had communicated via e-mail with Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical American cleric living in Yemen who formerly served as the imam of a mosque Hasan had attended in Virginia. What did they talk about? From the Washington Post:
The FBI determined that the e-mails did not warrant an investigation, according to the law enforcement official. Investigators said Hasan's e-mails were consistent with the topic of his academic research and involved some social chatter and religious discourse.
We were confused this morning, because Ross had clearly reported that Hasan had made contact with "people associated with Al Qaeda," and the only contacts that other reporters were confirming were with al-Awlaki, who is, as far as we know, a single person. We called Ross and asked him if there were more "people." No, he told us, his initial report was only in reference to al-Awlaki.
"That's how it was initially described to me by my sources," he says. "Given what they told me, that's all I could say. It's a strange use of the word 'people.' But when pinned down, my sources said it's just al-Awlaki."
A strange use, indeed. How about false, too? Especially because Ross' original story did, in fact, report that al-Awliki was among the "people" Hasan was suspected of having contacted. So he reported that Hasan contacted more than one person associated with al Qaeda, and then named one person that he was suspected of contacting. What he apparently didn't bother to do was "pin his sources down" on exactly what they were saying. The result was a clear suggestion that Hasan had tried to communicate with the al Qaeda network on more than one occasion.
So did he? Al-Awlaki is routinely described by the FBI and others as an al Qaeda supporter, and a fiery inciter of violence against infidels. And he was the imam at the Virginia mosque attended by two of the 9/11 hijackers, as well as Hasan. But while it's clear that Al-Awlaki is a bad guy, what's not clear is whether he's simply a propagandist or someone who actually operates as a part of al Qaeda. It's one thing for Hasan to have sent e-mails to someone who vocally supports al Qaeda, and quite another for him to have sent e-mails to al Qaeda itself, or to operatives actively involved in trying to kill people. Ross told us that, according to his sources, "Al-Awlaki is considered a recruiter," which is how he justified invoking the name of the terrorist network. We'll defer to him on that point.
But without knowing what the e-mails are about, can it really be known that Hasan's communications were "attempts to reach out"? The FBI didn't consider them as such. Ross didn't know the contents of the e-mails when he described them that way, but felt perfectly justified in doing so based solely on the knowledge that Hasan had sent the e-mails.
We asked Ross if he had tried to contact Al-Awlaki in reporting the story:
So you reached out to al Qaeda, then?
"To al Qaeda? No. I reached out to him. Oh. I see what you're saying."
What's particularly maddening about Ross' hype is that it had already been well established that Al-Awlaki was the imam at Hasan's Virginia mosque in 2001. Hasan's mother's funeral services were held there at the time. While it hadn't been definitively established that Hasan had ever met Al-Awlaki, it was abundantly clear that the two men were in one another's orbits and that Hasan likely heard him preach. That wasn't reported as a "contact with al Qaeda," but once Ross got his hands on the fact that Hasan sent e-mails to his former imam, who had a web site with a comment form, he turned it into a blockbuster story.
Which wouldn't be the first time. Ross reported—inaccurately—after the anthrax attacks in 2001 that the powder contained a "potent additive...known to have been used by only one country in producing biochemical weapons - Iraq." He laundered CIA agent John Kiriakou's lie that the agency only used waterboarding once, for 30 seconds, when in fact Kiriakou wasn't even in the same country as the secret prison where his colleagues waterboarded two men a total of 266 times. He fell for the lies of Alexis Debat, a grifter and fraud who masqueraded as an intelligence expert. And he hyped his access to the phone records of DC madam Deborah Jean Palfrey for days, but only came up with the names of two low-level clients.
Ross' stock response to these complaints is that he only reports what his sources tell him. "We reported what we knew, when we knew it," he says. "I'm comfortable with the story." His problem, as we've said before, is that he has shitty sources. And he just repeats what they tell him. Which is how you get from "Hasan sent e-mails to his former imam, who now preaches in support of Al Qaeda. We don't know what the e-mails were about, but they didn't raise alarms at the FBI" to "Hasan tried to make contact with people associated with al Qaeda" to the headline's blunt, and thoroughly unsupported, reference to "Hasan's Contacts with al Qaeda." It would have been a good story if Ross had stuck to the first, accurate, formulation.