Big Stories, Spooky Sources

From the Columbia Journalism Review

May/June 1993

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 media.

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, May/June 1992).

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. . . ."

"Listen to him, trust him, print his story verbatim--then sit around and watch your career go up in flames."

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 Iran.

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."
Uhrhammer added:
"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 or nonexistent."
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 Solidarity").

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 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 conspiracy."

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:
"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. . . ."

"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. . . ."

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.

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 be constructed.

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 frequencies.

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."



See also:

Snepp, Frank. (1991). “Brenneke Exposed.” Village Voice, September 10, 1991, pp. 27-31.

Snepp, Frank. (1993). “Last Rites: The Implications of the Final Debunking (We Hope) of October Surprise, Village Voice, February 2, 1993, p. 36.

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