Accuracy in Media

Washington Post reporter Dana Priest won a Pulitzer Prize for a story about CIA “secret prisons” in Europe that cannot be confirmed and appears to be essentially false. This puts the paper in a very difficult position. It gave back one Pulitzer, a story about a child heroin addict by Janet Cooke, after it was exposed as a fraud. So far, the only evidence that the Priest story is true is her insistence that her secret sources were telling the truth. But Priest isn’t talking about the nature of those “sources” and whether fired CIA officer and John Kerry campaign contributor Mary O. McCarthy was one of them.

On April 27, during an on-line discussion, Priest said she was doubtful that any evidence proving the existence of the “secret prisons” would come from the European investigators looking into the controversy. “I will be very surprised if the EU [European Union] commissions find evidence of the prisons,” she said. She made the comments in response to a question about returning the Pulitzer “until the truth is finally determined.”

Priest also said, “I suggest going to the newspapers today, which carried stories about the status of the investigations.”

We followed her suggestion. Those stories concerned an investigation conducted by Socialist Giovanni Fava of Italy on behalf of the European Parliament. He said he found evidence of the CIA transferring terrorists through Europe. But the stories about his investigation in the Post and New York Times did not say that he had verified the existence of “secret prisons.” In fact, the Times story stated, “As for the question of secret CIA detention centers in Europe, the new report offered no hard evidence.” An Associated Press story said that “Fava provided no evidence of secret CIA prisons on EU territory?”

Fava is the third European investigator who has failed to confirm the existence of the “secret prisons.” Priest’s ludicrous response seems to be that this is why they are (or were) “secret.” This circular argument is desperation on her part to hold on to her controversial Pulitzer Prize. But with all the journalism scandals that have occurred over the years, ranging from the Janet Cooke fiasco to Jayson Blair’s lying and plagiarism at the New York Times, there’s just no reason for the public to accept what the media are telling us, especially when their “sources” remain anonymous and the public evidence contradicts what they have reported.

Based on a careful reading of the story and the facts surrounding the case, it seems clear that the allegation of “secret prisons” was embellished, either by Priest or her “sources,” into something that sounded sensational and was more likely to make headlines across the world and win journalism prizes. The story that the CIA transferred and even detained terrorists across Europe wasn’t sexy enough. So Priest or her “sources” came up with the idea that the agency maintained “secret prisons,” comparable to the Soviet gulags. This was designed to get attention and it also had the effect of inciting our enemies. Priest’s husband, William Goodfellow, is an official of a far-left organization, the Center for International Policy, which works with many of the liberal “human rights” groups that have exploited the “secret prisons” story abroad to make America look bad. But don’t look for the Post to run any stories about that.

Priest probably never thought there would be any serious scrutiny of her “sources”?or her husband, for that matter. But how could she know that a top CIA officer with a partisan political background would be fired for having unauthorized contacts with Priest and other journalists? Then the story took another interesting twist. Fired CIA officer Mary O. McCarthy subsequently denied leaking classified information about the “secret prisons.” Priest still won’t comment on whether McCarthy was one of her sources.

It is probably the case that McCarthy talked to Priest but never used the term “secret prisons.” It is possible that McCarthy wants to distance herself from an allegation that she knows to be dubious, in order to avoid prosecution for revealing classified information to a reporter who exaggerated the story for political reasons. Priest could take McCarthy off the hook by simply declaring her not to be a source on the story. But she refuses to do that.

None of this is meant to suggest that the Priest story wasn’t true in some minor respects. It now seems clear that the CIA had some kind of classified program to transfer terrorists across Europe. But this doesn’t constitute a network of “secret prisons,” as Priest alleged. It looks like Priest took some elements of a classified program and transformed them, tabloid-style, into a story that was essentially not true. She made a controversial program into something that was, as former CIA officer Michael Scheuer put it, “titillating to the world’s media and incentive to America’s European enemies?”

Scheuer, in a December 12, 2005, Washington Times column, wrote about how the Post recklessly pursued this story, and how it helped “destroy the cover of a covert-action capability that took years to perfect.” But Scheuer also referred to how “the CIA’s clandestine counterterrorism cooperation with several allies has been exposed or reported incorrectly?”  (emphasis added). That is how the Priest story became communist-style disinformation. It not only damaged our anti-terrorism efforts but put the Europeans on a wild goose chase to track down the “secret prisons” that will continue indefinitely. Most of this stems from the initial November 2, 2005, Priest story.

What the Post did, Scheuer said, was undermine further allied cooperation in a successful program. The paper’s actions will “weaken America against al Qaeda and result in more dead Americans,” he said.

And in a statement that was both ominous and prescient, he said, “For the Post, thousands of American corpses are apparently not too much of a price to pay for selling papers and bagging a Pulitzer.”

Priest ought to take that bag and put it over her head. It is a shame and a disgrace what the Post has done. The only way to partially save face at this point is to give back the Pulitzer. This should be done before the Post annual shareholders meeting on May 11 and the paper suffers further embarrassment.

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