by Jim Lobe
Last Thursday, the highly respected, non-profit investigative news agency Pro
Publica featured a 2,400-word article, “The Terror Threat and Iran’s Inroads in Latin America”, by its award-winning senior reporter, Sebastian Rotella, who has long specialized in terrorism and national-security coverage. In support of its main thesis that Iran appears to be expanding its alleged criminal and terrorist infrastructure in Venezuela and other “leftist, populist, anti-U.S. governments throughout the region,” Rotella quotes the Director of National Intelligence (DNI), Lt. Gen. James Clapper (ret.), as telling a Senate hearing last year that Iran’s alliances with Venezuela and other “leftist, populist, anti-U.S. government” could pose
…an immediate threat by giving Iran – directly through the IRGC, the Quds Force [an external unit of the IRGC] or its proxies like Hezbollah – a platform in the region to carry out attacks against the United States, our interests, and allies.
Now, there is a serious problem with that quotation: Clapper never said any such thing. Indeed, the exact words attributed to the DNI were first spoken at a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing entitled “Ahmadinejad’s Tour of Tyrants and Iran’s Agenda in the Western Hemisphere” (page 2) by none other than the Committee’s then-chair, Florida Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, whose hostility toward Iran is exceeded only by her views on Cuba and Venezuela.* It is, after all, one thing to have the head of the U.S. intelligence community tell Congress that the threat of an attack against the United States from various “platforms” in Latin America is “immediate.” It’s quite another for a far-right Cuban-American congresswomen from Miami to offer that assessment, particularly given her past record of championing Luis Posada Carriles and the late Orlando Bosch, both of whom, according to declassified CIA and FBI documents, were almost certainly involved in the 1976 mid-air bombing of a Cuban civilian airliner, among other terrorist acts.
I personally have no doubt that the misattribution was unintentional and merely the product of sloppiness or negligence. But negligence matters, particularly when it is committed in pursuit of a thesis that Rotella has long propagated (more on that in upcoming posts) and that comes amid an ongoing and well-orchestrated campaign against Iran that could eventually result in war, as Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu reminded us yet again Sunday. Of course, such a glaring mistake also detracts from the credibility of the rest of the article, much of which is based on anonymous sources whose own credibility is very difficult to assess.
The Iranian threat and anonymous sourcing
Most of the article concerns a hearing with the rather suggestive title, “Threat to the Homeland: Iran’s Extending Influence in the Western Hemisphere”, which was held July 9 by the Subcommittee on Oversight and Management Efficiency of the Republican-led House Homeland Security Committee with the apparent purpose of rebutting a still-classified State Department report, which included a two-page unclassified appendix concluding that Iran’s influence in the region is actually on the wane. In addition to reporting on the hearing, however, Rotella provides some original reporting of his own in the lede paragraphs, setting an appropriately dark and menacing tone for the rest of his story:
Last year, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited his ally President Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, where the firebrand leaders unleashed defiant rhetoric at the United States.
There was a quieter aspect to Ahmadinejad’s visit in January 2012, according to Western intelligence officials. A senior officer in the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) traveled secretly with the presidential delegation and met with Venezuelan military and security chiefs. His mission: to set up a joint intelligence program between Iranian and Venezuelan spy agencies, according to the Western officials.
At the secret meeting, Venezuelan spymasters agreed to provide systematic help to Iran with intelligence infrastructure such as arms, identification documents, bank accounts and pipelines for moving operatives and equipment between Iran and Latin America, according to Western intelligence officials. Although suffering from cancer, Chavez took interest in the secret talks as part of his energetic embrace of Iran, an intelligence official told ProPublica.
The senior IRGC officer’s meeting in Caracas has not been previously reported.
The aim is to enable the IRGC to be able to distance itself from the criminal activities it is conducting in the region, removing the Iranian fingerprint,” said the intelligence official, who requested anonymity because he is not authorized to speak publicly. “Since Chavez’s early days in power, Iran and Venezuela have grown consistently closer, with Venezuela serving as a gateway to South America for the Iranians.”
The bold face, added for emphasis, is designed to illustrate Rotella’s heavy reliance on anonymous “intelligence officials”, none of whose nationalities are specified. In the context of an investigative report, that failure begs a series of questions that bear on the credibility of the account.
For example, does he include Israelis in his definition of “Western officials” or “Western intelligence officials?” After all, it would be one thing to cite a Swedish intelligence official who may tend to be somewhat more objective in describing Iranian-Venezuelan intelligence cooperation; it’s quite another to quote an Israeli “official” responsible to a government that has been aggressively promoting a policy of confrontation with Iran for many years now. And if his sources agreed to talk to Rotella only on the condition of being identified as “Western officials” or “Western intelligence officials”, why did they do so? (Indeed, the only identified “Western intelligence official” quoted — or misquoted — by Rotella in the entire article is Clapper.) Identifying at least the nationality of the officials with whom Rotella spoke with would help readers assess their credibility, but he offers no help in that regard.
Moreover, given the details about the meeting provided by Rotella’s sources, why was the senior IRGC officer who set up the purported joint intelligence program with the Venezuelans not named? That omission sticks out like a sore thumb.
But the problems in Rotella’s article go beyond the misattribution of the Ros-Lehtinen quote or his heavy reliance on anonymous sources. Indeed, it took all of about 30 minutes of Googling (most of which was devoted to tracking down the alleged Clapper quote) to discover that the story also includes distortions of the record in relevant criminal proceedings and a major error of fact in reporting the testimony of at least one of the hearing’s four witnesses — all of whom, incidentally, share well-established records of hostility toward Iran.
But before going into the results of my Google foray, let’s hear what a former top U.S. intelligence analyst had to say about Rotella’s article. I asked Paul Pillar, a 28-year CIA veteran who served as the National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia from 2000 to 2005 (which means he was in charge of the analysis of those regions for the CIA and all other U.S. intelligence agencies), if he could read it. This was his emailed reply:
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.
As we will try to show in subsequent posts by Marsha Cohen and Gareth Porter (who both contributed substantially to this post), Pillar’s assessment could apply to a number of Rotella’s articles, especially about the Middle East and alleged Iranian or Hezbollah terrorism, going back to his years at the Los Angeles Times. What virtually all of them have in common is the heavy reliance on anonymous intelligence sources; a mixture of limited original reporting combined with lots of recycled news; a proclivity for citing highly ideological, often staunchly hawkish neoconservative “experts” on Middle East issues from such think tanks as the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD), the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and the American Foreign Policy Council (AFPC) without identifying them as such; a surprising deference (considering his status as a investigative reporter) toward “official” accounts or reports by friendly security agencies, some of which work very closely with their Israeli counterparts (see, for example, this 2009 story about an alleged plot against the Israeli embassy in Azerbaijan about which Gareth plans to write a post); and a general failure to offer critical analysis or alternative explanations about specific terrorist incidents or groups that are often readily available from academic or other more independent and disinterested regional or local specialists.
Iran in Latin America
In the meantime, it’s also important to set the context for Rotella’s latest article. It came amid an intense campaign over the past couple of years by Iran hawks, including individuals from the various neoconservative think tanks cited above, to highlight the purported terrorist threat posed by Iran and Hezbollah from their Latin American “platforms,” as Ros-Lehtinen put it. Those efforts culminated in legislation, the “Countering Iran in the Western Hemisphere Act of 2012,” approved overwhelmingly by Congress last December. Among other provisions, it required the State Department to report to Congress on Iran’s “growing hostile presence and activity in the Western Hemisphere,” along with a strategy for neutralizing it, within six months. That report, only a two-page annex of which were publicly released, was submitted at the end of last month.
To the disappointment of the bill’s chief sponsors, notably the Republican chairman of the subcommittee, Rep. Jeff Duncan, the report concluded that, despite an increase in Tehran’s “outreach to the region working to strengthen its political, economic, cultural and military ties, …Iranian influence in Latin America and the Caribbean is waning.” And while the rest of the report remains classified, its contents reportedly were consistent with those of the State Department’s 2013 Country Reports on Terrorism, also released last month, which found no evidence of Iranian or Hezbollah terrorist plotting or operations in the Americas, in contrast to what it described as a sharp increase of such activity in Europe, the Middle East and Asia during the past year.
Duncan, who, incidentally, spoke on a panel on Evangelical Christian support for Israel at AIPAC’s annual conference last year, and who in 2011 became the only member of Congress given a 100-percent rating on the Heritage Action for America legislative scorecard, expressed outrage at these conclusions, accusing the State Department of failing to “consider all the facts.” In particular, he charged that the State Department had not taken into account new evidence “documenting Iran’s [ongoing] terrorism activities and operations in the Western Hemisphere” compiled by an Argentine prosecutor, Alberto Nisman, in a 502-page report released (perhaps not entirely coincidentally) just one month before the State Department was due to submit its study.
The Nisman Report and the AMIA bombing
In 2006, Nisman, the chief prosecutor in the case of the 1994 bombing of the Argentine-Israeli Mutual Association (AMIA) building, released an even longer controversial report on that case in which he concluded that the bombing had been ordered by Iran’s top leadership and carried out by Hezbollah operatives under the direction of Iran’s cultural attaché at its Argentine embassy, Mohsen Rabbani. (Gareth wrote his own critique of the 2006 report for the The Nation in 2008, joining many Argentine journalists and researchers in questioning Nisman’s theory of the case. Last week he published a related story for IPS that noted the diminished credibility of Nisman’s primary source, a former Iranian intelligence operative named Abdolghassem Mesbahi. He plans a new series on the subject to begin later this month.) The State Department report, Duncan said at the hearing, “directly contradicts the findings from Mr. Nisman’s three-year investigation, which showed clear infiltration of the Iranian regime within countries in Latin America using embassies, mosques, and cultural centers.”
Indeed, according to Nisman’s new report, Iran, through Rabbani and other operatives, has established “clandestine intelligence stations and operative agents” throughout Latin America, including in Guyana, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Paraguay, Suriname, Trinidad & Tobago and Uruguay and, most especially in the Tri-Border Area (TBA) of Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay, a region about which Rotella wrote rather darkly when he was Buenos Aires bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times in the late 1990’s. (In fact, a 15-year-old article on the TBA as a “Jungle Hub for World’s Outlaws” and a refuge for terrorists was cited by WINEP’s Matthew Levitt in written testimony submitted at last week’s hearing. Long one of Rotella’s favorite sources, Levitt, the subject of a rather devastating (pay-walled) profile by Ken Silverstein in Harper’s Magazine last year, has been a major figure in the U.S.- and Israeli-led campaign to persuade the European Union to list Hezbollah as a terrorist entity, a campaign that has been boosted by Rotella’s work, as reflected in this article published by ProPublica last April. (The symbiotic relationship between the two men may be the subject of a subsequent LobeLog post.)
Nisman, whose new report has been promoted heavily by neoconservative media and institutions over the past six weeks (see, for example, here, here, here, and here), had been invited by the chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, Texas Rep. Michael McCaul, to testify at last week’s hearing. But, as noted by Rotella in the article, “his government abruptly barred him from traveling to Washington”, a development which, according to McCaul, constituted a “slap in the face of this committee and the U.S. Congress” and was an indication that Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner had no intention to “pursue justice and truth on Iranian involvement in the AMIA bombing.”
(In his message to me, Pillar noted that there were other good reasons why Kirchner would not want to see Nisman “being used as a prop in Duncan’s hearing …[given] other equities …regarding relations with Washington,” including the ongoing lawsuit against Argentina by a group of hedge funds — led by Paul Singer, a billionaire and major funder of hard-line pro-Israel organizations — that have sponsored full-page ads in the Washington Post and other publications highlighting, among other things, Argentina’s allegedly cozy relationship with Iran.)
In his article, Rotella, who appears to have accepted without question the conclusions of Nisman’s 2006 report on the AMIA bombing, also offers an uncritical account of the prosecutor’s latest report, quoting affirmations by Duncan, McCaul, as well as the four witnesses who testified at the hearing that the report’s main contentions were true — Iran and Hezbollah are indeed building up their terrorist infrastructure in the region. “The attacks in Buenos Aires in the 1990s revealed the existence of Iranian operational networks in the Americas,” Rotella’s writes. “The Argentine investigation connected the plots to hubs of criminal activity and Hezbollah operational and financing cells in lawless zones, such as the triple border of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay and the border between Colombia and Venezuela.”
The Nisman Report and the JFK Bomb Plot
After noting U.S. Treasury designations in 2008 of two Venezuelans as terrorists “for allegedly raising funds for Hezbollah, discussing terrorist operations with Hezbollah operatives, and aiding travel of militants from Venezuela to training sessions in Iran”, Rotella provides the purported Clapper quote about Venezuela and its allies offering “a platform in the region to carry out attacks against the United States, our interests, and allies”, suggesting (falsely) that the DNI himself endorsed Nisman’s view that Iran was behind a plot to attack JFK airport six years ago:
The aborted 2007 plot to attack JFK (airport) was an attempt to use that platform, according to the Argentine special prosecutor. A Guyanese-American Muslim who had once worked as a cargo handler conceived an idea to blow up jet fuel tanks at the airport. He formed a homegrown cell that first sought aid from al Qaida, then coalesced around Abdul Kadir, a Guyanese politician and Shiite Muslim leader.
The trial in New York federal court revealed that Kadir was a longtime intelligence operative for Iran, reporting to the Iranian ambassador in Caracas and communicating also with Rabbani, the accused AMIA plotter.
‘Kadir agreed to participate in the conspiracy, committing himself to reach out to his contacts in Venezuela and the Islamic Republic of Iran,’ Nisman’s report says. ‘The entry of Kadir into the conspiracy brought the involvement and the support of the intelligence station established in Guyana by the Islamic regime.’
Police arrested Kadir as he prepared to fly to Iran to discuss the New York plot with Iranian officials. He was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
But this account of the case is tendentious, to say the least, and here I am relying on Gareth’s research into the case, which he covered in an IPS story last week. While Rotella claimed that the would-be terrorist “cell” had “coalesced around” Kadir, the original criminal complaint that was submitted to the U.S. district court in New York on which the arrests of the four men accused in the plot were based makes clear that Kadir was a secondary participant at the time the arrest was made. In addition, the complaint made no mention of any ties between Kadir and Iran.
Moreover, Rotella’s assertion that the trial revealed Kadir to have been “longtime intelligence operative for Iran” is unfounded, apparently based on nothing more than a set of personal letters Kadir had sent by ordinary mail to Rabbani and the Iranian ambassador to Venezuela and the fact that some contact information for Rabbani was found in Kadir’s address book.
But Kadir’s letters to Rabbani were clearly not the work of an Iranian intelligence operative. They consisted of publicly available information about the political, social and economic situation in Guyana, where Kadir was a member of parliament. Indeed, the fact that they were sent by regular mail — and the lack of any known replies by the addressees — suggests that Kadir’s relationship to Iranian intelligence was even more distant and less interactive than that of George Zimmerman’s to the Seminole County sheriff’s office in Florida.
During the subsequent trial in 2010, the prosecution tried to play up the letters and even asked Kadir if he was a spy for Iran, which he denied strongly. No other evidence implicating Iran in the plot was introduced. Even the U.S. Attorney’s press release issued after Kadir’s sentencing (and discoverable within mini-seconds on Google) offers no indication that Iran had any knowledge of the plot at the time of his arrest. Finally, if indeed the U.S. government had acquired any evidence that Rabbani or any other Iranian official had a role in the plot, as asserted by Nisman, it seems reasonable to ask why he wasn’t indicted along with Kadir and the three others? Yet, in spite of all these factors, Rotella appears to accept Nisman’s argument that the Iranian government had a role in the case and that Kadir was its “long-time intelligence operative” presumably in charge of its “intelligence station” in Guyana.
Rotella next cites the purported testimony (of unknown origin) of Fernando Tabares, the former director of Colombia’s intelligence agency who
…described a mission by an Iranian operative to Colombia via Venezuela in 2008 or 2009. Working with Iranian officials based at the embassy in Bogota, the operative, according to Nisman’s report, ‘was looking at targets in order to carry out possible attacks here in Colombia,’ Tabares testified.
Apart from the vagueness of this account about the unidentified Iranian operative and his mission — as well as the absence of any corroborating evidence — Rotella omitted the easily discoverable fact (via Google) that Tabares himself was sentenced in 2010 to eight years in prison for abuse of trust and illegal wire-tapping, a detail that may reflect on the former intelligence chief’s credibility.
Iranian migrants (refugees?) to Canada
A couple of paragraphs later, Rotella cites the testimony of Joseph Humire, “a security expert” and one of the four witnesses who testified at last week’s hearing. According to Rotella, Humire, executive director at the Center for a Secure Free Society
…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. Between 2009 and 2011, the majority of those Iranian migrants passed through Caracas, where airport and airline personnel were implicated in providing them with fraudulent documents, according to the Canadian border agency.
But Rotella misreports Humire’s testimony. Humire did not say that Iran was the top source of illegal migrants to Canada; he said Iran was the top source country of improperly documented migrants who make refugee claims in Canada — a not insignificant difference, particularly because the number of Iranian asylum-seekers who come to Canada each year averages only at about 300, according to the CSBA report, which noted that 86% won their asylum claims. In addition, the report, a heavily redacted copy of which was graciously provided to me by Humire, indicates that, between 2009 and 2012, more of these migrants flew into Canada from Mexico City and London than from Caracas.
Moreover, the picture painted by the redacted CSBA report is considerably less frightening than that offered by either Rotella or, for that matter, Humire’s testimony.
Many of these migrants use “facilitators” to enter Canada, according to the report. “…Information provided by the migrants on their smugglers suggest possible links to organized criminal elements both within and outside of Canada…Many people seeking refuge in Canada use fake documents and rely on middlemen to help them flee persecution in their homelands.“
“While Iranian irregular migrants mainly enter Canada to make refugee claims, it is possible that certain individuals may enter with more sinister motives”, the report cautioned, observing that 19 Iranian immigrants had been denied entry on security grounds since 2008.
So, instead of the flood of Iranian operatives pouring into Canada, as suggested by Rotella, what we are talking about is a relatively small number of Iranians who are seeking asylum from a repressive regime. And, like hundreds of thousands of other refugees around the world, they rely on traffickers who provide them with forged or otherwise questionable documents. A few of these may be entering Canada for “more sinister motives”, but Rotella offers no concrete evidence that they have done so.
Yet Rotella follows his brief — if fundamentally flawed — summary of Humire’s remarks about Iranian asylum-seekers in Canada with his own riff, going “out of the way to raise suspicions about Iranian activities,” as Pillar notes, and returning once again to those anonymous “security officials” as his sources.
Humire’s allegations are consistent with interviews in recent years in which U.S., Latin America and Israeli security officials have told ProPublica about suspected Middle Eastern operatives and Latin American drug lords obtaining Venezuelan documents through corruption or ideological complicity.
“There seems to be an effort by the Venezuelan government to make sure that Iranians have a full set of credentials,” a U.S. law enforcement official said.
Last year’s secret talks between Iranian and Venezuelan spies intensified such cooperation, according to Western intelligence officials who described the meetings to ProPublica. The senior Iranian officer who traveled with the presidential entourage asked Venezuelan counterparts to ensure access to key officials in the airport police, customs and other agencies and “permits for transferring cargo through airports and swiftly arranging various bureaucratic matters,” the intelligence official said.
Venezuelan leaders have denied that their alliance with Iran has hostile intent. They have rejected concerns about flights that operated for years between Caracas and Tehran. The State Department and other U.S. agencies criticized Venezuela for failing to make public passenger and cargo manifests and other information about secretive flights to Iran, raising the fear of a pipeline for clandestine movement of people and goods.
The flights have been discontinued, U.S. officials say.
ProPublica’s high standards
I personally believe that ProPublica, since it launched its operations in 2008, has performed an invaluable public service in providing high-quality investigative journalism at a time when the genre risked (and still risks) becoming virtually extinct. As a result, readers of the agency have come to expect its articles not only to compile existing information that is already publicly available in ways that connect the dots, but also provide important, previously unpublished material with important insights into the events of the day in ways that seriously challenge conventional wisdom as defined by mainstream media and, as ProPublica’s mission statement puts it, “those with power.” The question posed by Rotella’s latest article — as well as other work he has published on alleged Iranian and Hezbollah terrorism — is whether it meets the mission and high standards that ProPublica readers expect.
Given the misattribution of a quotation critical to the story’s thesis; the prolific use of anonymous “Western intelligence sources” and the like; the citation of sources with a clear ideological or political axe to grind; the omission of information that could bear on those sources’ credibility; the more or less uncritical acceptance of official reports that are known to be controversial but that generally reflect the interests of the axe-grinders; and the failure to confirm misinformation that can be quickly searched and verified, one can’t help but ask whether Rotella’s work meets ProPublica’s standards.
That question takes on additional and urgent importance given the subject — alleged terrorist activities by Iran and Hezbollah — Rotella specializes in. All of us remember the media’s deplorable failure to critically challenge the Bush administration’s allegations — and those of anonymous “Western intelligence sources”, etc. — about Saddam Hussein’s links to Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups, as well as his vast and fast-growing arsenal of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), including a supposedly advanced nuclear-weapons program. We now have, in many respects, a comparable situation with respect to Iran. Bearing that history in mind, any media organization — but especially one of ProPublica’s stature and mission — should be expected to make extraordinary efforts not only to verify its information, reduce its reliance on anonymous sources and avoid innuendo, but also to aggressively challenge “official” narratives or those that are quite obviously being promoted as part of a campaign by parties with a clear interest in confrontation — even war — with Iran. The stakes are unusually high.
Gareth Porter and Marsha Cohen contributed substantially to this report.
*Today, shortly before this blog post was published and one day after I contacted the DNI press office to confirm that the quotation had been misattributed to DNI Clapper, ProPublica issued the following correction: “Due to an error in testimony by a congressional witness, this story initially misattributed a statement made by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., to James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence. The story has been revised to correct the attribution and incorporate Clapper’s actual statement to a Senate committee.” In my view, the wording of the correction, suggesting that the misattribution was the fault of a witness, underlines the importance of scrupulous fact-checking when dealing with such a charged issue. As noted above, Clapper was the only identified Western intelligence official cited in the article, and his quotation — or non-quotation — is critical to the overall credibility of the underlying thesis: that Iran and Hezbollah are building a terrorist infrastructure in the Americas aimed at the U.S.
UPDATE: Apparently, the witness who misattributed the Ros-Lehtinen/Clapper quote was the AFPC’s Ilan Berman (who most recently misattributed the quote in a usnews.com op-ed co-authored by Netanel Levitt on July 15). Berman, a leading figure in the sanctions campaign against Iran, suggested shortly after the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq that Washington should pursue regime change in Iran.
Photo Credit: Prensa Miraflores
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