Big Stories, Spooky SourcesFrom the Columbia Journalism Review
Posted by permission of the author
By Chip Berlet
For an investigative journalist, reporting on official misconduct involving
covert operations, intelligence-gathering, and national security issues
is like competing in a potato-sack race in a minefield. All officials tend
to be suspicious of the motives of nosy journalists; government spokespersons
frequently deny first and dissemble later; meanwhile, actual spies tend
to keep their mouths shut. As a result, sources for such stories frequently
come from a murky netherworld of ex-intelligence agents, retired military
officers, and self-anointed investigators. Some offer valuable information
along with frustrating fantasies; some are well-meaning but confused; others
are professional or amateur charlatans. A few are brilliant paranoid crackpots.
Some people just plain lie.
Over the past three years, this reporter has interviewed or read the
relevant writings of more than fifty investigative reporters and researchers
spanning the political spectrum. Most of them thought one should not
minimize the continuing reality of illegal and unethical conduct by government
and private intelligence operatives. But even those who agreed that tough
reporting on these subjects helps defend constitutional safeguards added
that they have grown very weary of hearing the same unproved or debunked
conspiratorial stories over and over again.
"A lot of stories with conspiratorial themes have gone a great
distance with very few credible witnesses," says Michael Kelly of "The
New York Times". "Some reporters use a much lower standard of evidence
with these stories. They are tempted to take what they can get, and overlook
the fact that the source has been convicted twice for perjury and on
alternate Tuesdays he thinks he is Napoleon Bonaparte."
If many of the key sources for conspiracy stories are unreliable, why are
so many journalists tempted to use them? One reason is that, in an age
of official denials, many journalists give unofficial sources the benefit
of the doubt. Another is that, in some cases, the tales these sources tell
provide a fairly clearcut explanation of what may otherwise be a confusing
welter of conceivably related events. In short, they provide a story line.
A third reason is that they can usually supply details that seem to substantiate
their version of events. When the details provided by two or three such
sources mesh, the theory gains in credibility and the story built on it
may gain wider attention in the media. Meanwhile, talk radio shows, interviews
on small FM stations, even messages posted on computerized information
networks contribute to keeping theories alive--and building an audience
that wants to hear more.
The following look at a selection of individuals and groups that have
served as sources for recent conspiracy stories may help to point up
the problems they can pose for journalists in both the print and broadcast
Several spooky sources contributed to the October Surprise story line,
according to which the 1980 Reagan-Bush presidential campaign made a
deal with the Iranians to delay the release of American hostages until
after the November elections, to help assure the defeat of Jimmy Carter.
A key figure in that story, and one whose usefulness as a source has
been attacked and defended in these pages, was former Israeli intelligence
operative Ari Ben-Menashe (see "The October Surprise: Enter the Press," CJR,
March/April 1992, and "October Surprise: Unger v. Weinberg," Letters,
One journalist who took Ben-Menashe's allegations more seriously than
most was Craig Unger, author of an October 1991 "Esquire" article titled "October
Surprise." Following several attacks on the Surprise theory, Unger wrote
a long, interesting article called "The Trouble with Ari," which appeared
in "The Village Voice" in July 1992. There, more clearly than in his "Esquire" piece,
Unger explains the dilemma a source of this kind poses for the journalist.
After reminding readers that some of BenMenashe's claims can be corroborated
and that he was "the guy who started talking about the clandestine American
arms pipeline to Iraq's Saddam Hussein. . . long before the story started
breaking in the press this spring," Unger writes:
"Ari has put five or six dozen journalists from all over the
world through roughly the same paces. His seduction begins with a display
of his mastery of the trade craft of the legendary Israeli intelligence
services. A roll of quarters handy for furtive phone calls, he navigates
the back channels that tie the spooks at Langley to their counterparts
in Tel Aviv. His astute analysis and mind-boggling revelations can stir
even the most jaded old hand of the Middle East. . . But trust him at
your own risk. . . ."
Another oft-cited source in the October Surprise story was Michael Riconosciuto,
who provided many tantalizing leads to investigative reporter Danny Casolaro
before the free-lancer's death, which was ruled a suicide (see "The Octopus
File," CJR, November/December 1991). Riconosciuto claimed to have specialized
knowledge in computer science and software design, the kind of knowledge
that, he said, made him useful to intelligence operatives. Casolaro was
looking into the alleged theft by the Justice department of a privately
owned software program called Promis. Riconosciuto offered an explanation:
he told Casolaro that someone in the Justice department had given the software
to American intelligence operatives for resale to intelligence agencies
in Canada and abroad. One form of payment, he told the journalist, was
the orchestration of the release of the American hostages being held in
"Listen to him, trust him, print his story verbatim--then sit around and
watch your career go up in flames."
Riconosciuto went on to weave a tale involving the Cabazon Indian reservation
in southern California, purportedly the site of a supersecret research and
testing base for weapons of interest to intelligence operatives. Casolaro began
to see the reservation as part of a globe-spanning entity of untold power,
which he called The Octopus.
Jerry Uhrhammer of the Tacoma, Washington, "Morning News Tribune" was the
only reporter to cover Riconosciuto's three-week-long drug trial, held in Tacoma
in April 1991. In the July/August 1992 "IRE Journal", Uhrhammer wrote:
"Any reporter who checked the court file prior to Riconosciuto's
trial could have found documents that offered a psychiatric explanation for
[his] conspiracy tales. Psychiatrists who examined him in 1972, prior to his
first drug conviction, portrayed him as a mentally unstable person who had
trouble discerning between fact and fiction."
"I have been dismayed and appalled by some articles in which Riconosciuto
is quoted as a primary source, if not sole source, in support of some conspiracy
theory, but without any warning to the reader that his credibility is suspect
Free-lance reporter Jonathan Littman spent four months investigating charges
regarding the Cabazon Indian reservation, including those circulated by Casolaro,
who had been using Riconosciuto as a source. Littman wrote a fascinating three-part
series for the "San Francisco Chronicle" on how outsiders were abusing tribal
sovereignty. Littman and "Chronicle" reporter Michael Taylor also wrote a story
about Riconosciuto's claims about several murders linked to persons associated
with the Cabazon reservation. "We had to throw out tons of stuff from Riconosciuto
wholesale," says Taylor.
In addition to individual sources such as these, there are organizations that
disseminate conspiracy theories through every segment of the media. Despite
their political differences, these organizations tend to reinforce one another. "There
has been some odd communion of the minds between the far left and the far right
in viewing the world as one vast and varied conspiracy," says Michael Kelly, "and
that communion has exponentially increased the ability of looneys of various
stripes to get their nonsense into print. These people have started a sort
of referral service: they all refer people to each other. So what you are doing
is chasing a rumor around a closed circle."
Listen to talk radio, for example, and chances are that when the talk turns
to conspiracy the same sources will be cited: the Christic Institute; the right-wing,
anti-Semitic Liberty Lobby and its "Spotlight" newspaper; and Lyndon LaRouche
publications, including "Executive Intelligence Review" and "The New Federalist" (formerly "New
These groups were among the first to provide pieces of the Irancontra puzzle.
But, as Kelly observes, "the true nuggets were usually mixed into a great stew
of falsities and improbabilities."
The Christic Institute is something of a rarity among advocacy groups: starting
out on the left of the political spectrum, over the years it was drawn into
the conspiracy theories woven by the radical right. The case that made the
institute famous, or infamous, in the journalistic community was "Avirgan v.
Hull", also known as the LaPenca case, after the Nicaraguan town where, in
1984, a bomb exploded during a press conference held in the headquarters of
dissident contra leader Eden Pastora. The assassination attempt left three
journalists dead and more than a dozen wounded. Among the wounded was American
free-lancer Tony Avirgan, who, with his journalist wife, Martha Honey, subsequently
brought suit against several individuals whom they believed responsible for
the bombing. One was John Hull, am American living in Costa Rica who was widely
thought to be helping to train and supply contra groups in neighboring Nicaragua.
The suit was dismissed by a federal district court in Miami in 1988. Avirgan
issued a statement explaining why he felt that the Christic Institute and its
general counsel, Daniel Sheehan, bore at least "partial responsibility for
the dismissal." It read, in part:
"As plaintiffs in the suit, Martha Honey and I struggled for years
to try to bring the case down to earth, to bringing it away from Sheehan's
wild allegations. Over the years, numerous staff lawyers quit over their inability
to control Sheehan. . . ."
The conspiracy Avirgan refers to was spelled out in a two-page circular sent
out to promote the sale of the "Affidavit of Daniel P. Sheehan," filed in 1986
and revised in early 1987. The circular began:
"The case, before it was inflated by Sheehan, was supposed to center on
the LaPenca bombing. On this, there is a strong body of evidence. . . enough
evidence to get a reluctant Costa Rican judiciary to indict two CIA operatives,
John Hull and Felipe Vidal, for murder and drug trafficking. Unfortunately,
little of this evidence was successfully transformed into evidence acceptable
to U.S. courts. It was either never submitted or was poorly prepared. In
large part, this was because Sheehan was concentrating on his broad, 30-year
"For the last 25 years a Secret Team of official and retired U.S.
military and CIA officials has conducted covert paramilitary operations and "anti-communist" assassination
programs throughout the Third World. . . ."
Among the twenty-nine defendants named were retired Generals Richard Secord and
John Singlaub, businessman Albert Hakim, Colombian druglord Pablo Escobar, and
contra leader Adolfo Calero.
"The international crimes committed by this group in the name of the United
States are at the heart of the Iran-contra scandal. . . "For a quarter of
a century this group has trafficked in drugs, assassinated political enemies,
stolen from the U.S. government, armed terrorists, and subverted the will
of Congress and the public with hundreds of millions of drug dollars at their
disposal." [Emphasis in original.]"
"The leaders and chief lieutenants of the Secret Team are defendants in
a $17 million civil lawsuit filed in May 1986 by the Christic Institute on
behalf of U.S. journalists Martha Honey and Tony Avirgan. . . ."
In a thoughtful analysis of the Christic Institute's lawsuit, David Corn observed
in the July 2-9, 1988, "Nation" that the institute "deserves credit. . . for
recognizing the Iran-contra scandal and its significance early on." He added: "It
has kept the investigative fires burning, sought to hold individuals accountable
for their roles in the affair, and probed issues overlooked by the congressional
investigating committees (including the contra drug connection and the La Penca
bombing. . . )" The institute's "advocacy of the Secret Team theory," on the
other hand, struck Corn as a serious flaw. It might be handy for raising money
in direct-mail solicitations but it presented problems for people who prefer
evidence to rhetoric. (This past February, Avirgan and Honey filed a motion
seeking Sheehan's disbarment.)
The institute no longer uses the term "Secret Team"--a term that gained currency
as the title of a 1973 books by retired Air Force Colonel L. Fletcher Prouty: "The
Secret Team: The CIA and Its Allies in Control of the United States and the
World". The Liberty Lobby's "Spotlight" elaborated on Prouty's thesis, weaving
into it a conspiracy theory that saw a "dual loyalist" Jewish influence at
work in U.S. foreign policy. By the mid-1980s, a number of critics of U.S.
intelligence operations, including Prouty, Mark Lane, and Victor Marchetti,
had adopted positions similar to "Spotlight"'s. In 1991, Prouty was listed
as a member of the Liberty Lobby's Populist Action Committee, as was also Pauline
Mackey, national treasurer for the 1988 David Duke Populist party presidential
campaign. Prouty's "Secret Team" was recently republished by Noontide Press,
the book and distribution arm of the Institute for Historical Review, a group
best known for promoting the theory that the Holocaust is essentially a hoax
perpetrated by Jews to benefit the state of Israel.
It is interesting to note in passing that Prouty was an adviser for Oliver
Stone's "JFK"--a conspiracy-theory movie that sparked renewed interest in conspiracy
theories--and was the model for the film's Colonel X, who, as played by Donald
Sutherland, moves around Washington, D.C., warning that the entire militaryindustrial
complex contracted the JFK hit.
Another major source of conspiracy theories are the LaRouchians--followers
of former presidential candidate Lyndon LaRouche, presently serving a jail
term for mail fraud and tax evasion. The LaRouchians are perhaps best known
for their theory that Great Britain's political leaders are basically puppets
of Jewish banking families and that Queen Elizabeth and others are in league
with these families to control the smuggling of drugs into the U.S.
Back in the early days of the Reagan administration, the LaRouche information-gathering
operation received a tribute from the he national Security Council's senior
director of international affairs, Dr. Norman Bailey, who called it "one of
the best private intelligence service in the world." (The LaRouchians' links
to the NSC's staff were terminated after producer Pat Lynch exposed the relationship
in a 1984 segment of NBC's short-lived "First Camera" news program. LaRouche
sued NBC, including Lynch and correspondent Mark Nykanen; free-lancer Dennis
King; this author; and the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith for defamation.
A jury ruled that characterizing LaRouche as an antiSemite, "small-time Hitler," cult-leader,
and crook was not defamation.)
Several journalists who published early Iran-contra stories say that the LaRouchians
were important players in the traditional Capitol press corps game of trading
tips and theories and sometimes swapping sources and documents. Her Quinde,
an intelligence policy analyst for the LaRouchians, confirms that he and other
LaRouchian investigators were then, and are now, in constant touch with journalists
and researchers across the political spectrum. The LaRouchians' "Executive
Intelligence Review" even gets a footnote acknowledgement from Ben Bradlee,
Jr., in his "Guts and Glory: The Rise and Fall of Oliver North". There he acknowledges
the help of "EIR" in decoding the shorthand used by North in his notebooks.
The largest audience for unverified conspiracy theories seems to be listeners
to small or alternative radio stations, where interview programs and talk shows
create a universe seldom sullied by fact or logic. Most radio conspiracy peddlers
use standard propaganda techniques. One is to mesmerize the audience with details
concerning various relationships among key villains while sliding past the
fact that there is little or no evidence connecting the anecdotes. Another
technique is to suggest that if one event follows another, the first event
caused the second: CIA chief William Casey went to Paris to talk about hostages;
the hostages were released after the election; therefore the deal was cut in
Paris. The sequence warrants investigation, but in itself proves nothing. A
third technique is to present affidavits as proven fact rather than untested
claims. Secret sources with "inside information" and "high-level" contacts
are ubiquitous. Pyramiding is popular: conclusions drawn from one set of facts
are later referred to as facts on which another level of the conspiracy may
One of the most popular such programs is Chuck Harder's "For the People",
aired by more than 140 AM and FM stations, and also on short wave and satellite
The Sun Radio Network, essentially owned by Liberty Lobby, carried a popular
daily program that churns the conspiracies "du jour": Tom Valentine's "Radio
Free America". Midwest bureau chief for "Spotlight", Valentine is a member
of the advisory board of Liberty Lobby's Populist Action Committee. According
to Shelly Shapiro, director of Holocaust Survivors and Friends in Pursuit of
Justice, the Sun Radio Network is one of the most significant sources of anti-Jewish
and pro-fascist propaganda in the U.S.
On the left of the spectrum, Pacifica Radio Network affiliates KPFA-FM in
San Francisco, KPFK-FM in Los Angeles, and WBAI-FM in New York City air long
hours of conspiracy-mongering discussions. Pacifica affiliates and scores of
small FM stations play tapes by or air interviews with a cast of characters
including John Judge, David Emory, Sherman Skolnick, Bo Gritz, and Craig Hulet
(aka K.C. Depass). These "experts" weave webs so intricate they make a Hitchcock
plot seem like a script for Mr. Rogers: cures for AIDS and cancer are intentionally
being suppressed by a government/media plot; Naval Intelligence secretly controls
the U.S.; the CIA arranged the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas confrontation.
Perhaps most farcical is Hulet's analysis of the book "Report from Iron Mountain",
which he presents as a secret document outlining the necessity for a war-based
economy. In fact, the book is a brilliant satire of the military-industrial
complex by author Leonard Lewin (editor of "A Treasury of American Political
Humor"). Nevertheless, Hulet and his audience regularly discuss the book as
if it were an official document.
Is it worth a journalist's while to try to check up on claims made by conspiracy
theories? Michael Taylor of the "San Francisco Chronicle", who reported on
goings-on at the Cabazon Indian reservation, says, "I will talk to anybody,
no matter how outlandish their theory, and see what is documentable." Jonathan
Marshall, the "Chronicle"'s economics editor, says that "sometimes [the LaRouchians]
are a source of good leads--their work on Panama has been of particular use." But,
he adds, "given their history, I never take [their information] at face value." Marshall
says that he will sometimes pursue LaRouchian leads, "and then do my own independent
research." If the lead pays off, he considers it his own effort and does not
credit the LaRouchians--in part, he admits, because doing so might hurt his
credibility as a journalist. "If you look across the board at cultish groups
that do 'research,'" he says, "you find sometimes that they have found amazing
documents that do, in fact, check out. But," he hastens to add, "documents
are one thing, accepting their analysis is simply not responsible."
Snepp, Frank. (1991). “Brenneke Exposed.” Village Voice, September 10, 1991,
Snepp, Frank. (1993). “Last Rites: The Implications of the Final Debunking
(We Hope) of October Surprise, Village Voice, February 2, 1993, p. 36.