Paraguay's Tri-Border Area: Who's Hyping Whom?

April Howard and Benjamin Dangl's "City of Terror" (Extra!, 9-10/07) is a remarkably sloppy, naive and tendentious piece of reporting even by your habitually partisan and lax standards. Let me see if I understand them correctly: They mosey into Ciudad del Este in 2007, can't find evidence of Islamic extremists in the Tri-Border Area (TBA), and projecting backward from that cursory examination, in which they appear not to have talked to anyone with any real knowledge of local security issues, conclude that exactly the same situation must always have prevailed in the region.

Frankly put, that is silly. In their eagerness to establish what they choose to call a "media misinformation campaign," they not only distort news reports written by those of us who have worked in the region, but also have opted to ignore every piece of evidence that undermines their argument. They quite properly mock the Donald Rumsfeld theory of intelligence ("build a hypothesis and see if the data supported the hypothesis, rather than the reverse"), but then turn around and engage in exactly the same practice themselves.

I'm not in a position to speak for or about other American reporters or newspapers that have written about the Ciudad del Este/Foz do Iguacu area and its ties to Islamic extremist groups. But since Howard and Dangl refer to one of my articles (New York Times, 12/15/02) in the oh-so-snide first paragraph of their report, erroneously attributing to me personally the views that were in fact expressed by the numerous intelligence officials I interviewed, I feel obliged to set the record straight and enumerate the cascade of false assumptions and distortions upon which they construct their flawed argument.

First and foremost is their assumption that just because they were unable to find any evidence of Islamic extremism in the Triple Frontier area in 2007, jihadist groups could not possibly have been operating there in the past. In reality, as was documented in the 2002 article of mine from which they cherry-picked passages they could manipulate (while ignoring others that undermine their thesis), there was a dispersal of such groups following the September 11 attacks, precisely because so much intelligence attention had been drawn to the TBA. I quote a senior Argentine intelligence official to that effect and name several of the places to which Argentine officials believe the jihadists had decamped.

Significantly, not one of the articles actually reported and datelined from the Triple Frontier that Howard and Dangl cite as proof that the mainstream press is somehow implementing "Washington's go-ahead to promote the unverified hypothesis" that Hezbollah has been "finding refuge in the Tri-Border Area" dates from after 2002. Not one. Every single one of the articles written from the field that they cite was in fact reported and published during the period 1998-2002, when, as has been amply demonstrated, Islamic extremists were indeed operating in the area.

It is simply impossible, therefore, that articles about an Islamic jihadist presence in the TBA could in any way be related to or serving a supposed American-led campaign to weaken or discredit left-wing governments in the region, which only took power in 2003 or later. Articles about the Triple Frontier and jihadists were published years before such governments came to power, and stopped when the jihadists decided to shift their operations elsewhere--a decision that also preceded the rise of those left-leaning governments by at least a year.

As regards the two terrorist attacks in Buenos Aires that killed more than 100 people in the mid-1990s, it is absolutely specious to maintain that the Triple Frontier has been "made an easy scapegoat" for the attacks, the worst anti-Semitic incidents anywhere since World War II, on the basis of mere "rumors" just because it has a large Arab population. In reality, the Argentine government has accumulated a substantial body of evidence, including shipping, telephone and immigration records, that tie extremists based in the region to the embassies of Iran, the patron of Hezbollah, in both Buenos Aires and Caracas. Howard and Dangl have either deliberately ignored this information, don't know the sources who would have been able to provide them access to it or simply couldn't be bothered to go to Puerto Iguazu and Buenos Aires, given their rush to denigrate the work of others.

In addition, there is both ample court testimony from a long trial in Buenos Aires as well as information supplied by a high-level defector from Iranian intelligence which indicates that Iran organized those attacks and used its allies in the Triple Frontier to help stage and finance them. Based in part on that information, Argentina has indicted nearly a dozen Iranian officials and, futilely so far, sought their extradition to stand trial in Argentina. This has been widely reported in both the Argentine and international press, yet Howard and Dangl choose to ignore this information, most likely because it not only does not jibe with their thesis, it in fact contradicts them.

From what they've written, in fact, it's not clear what sources with access to real intelligence Howard and Dangl have interviewed in the region, if any. There is no reference in their article to any interviews with Argentine, Brazilian or Paraguayan police, prosecutors or intelligence officials. In fact, the lone government source they cite is, of all things, the press attache for the governor of Alto Parana province in Paraguay, who they present as a supposed treasure trove of information and brandish as a club to castigate the mainstream press because we haven't talked to him.

I must confess I had a good chuckle at that. Since I haven't been in the TBA in 2007, I don't know the current governor or his flack. But I did know some of his predecessors, who, like their counterparts in Foz do Iguacu, were useless. If Howard and Dangl were reporting from the United States, they would not rely on that kind of Chamber of Commerce boosterism without checking his claims. So why are they willing to suspend skepticism in Paraguay, whose economy for years was based on contraband? Of course their source said there is no terrorist activity in the area. What else would you expect him to say? But if you talk to prosecutors and police investigators in Ciudad del Este and Foz do Iguacu, something Howard and Dangl seem to have neglected to do, you will hear an entirely different story.

Why don't Howard and Dangl mention the case of Assad Ahmad Barakat, for example? Both the Brazilian and Paraguayan authorities have named him as a Hezbollah fundraiser and money-launderer, based in part on receipts and other records they seized in a raid on his office in Ciudad del Este. In addition, U.S. authorities have also been able to trace the money trail that links him to Hezbollah--information that officials in the Triple Frontier area have in turn leaked to both the local and international press.

By the way, Barakat's office is just off the supposedly innocent and bucolic street that you chose to illustrate your story and mock the reporting of others. That choice shows your bias: You could just as easily have shown the warren of small stalls, shops, kiosks and stands that Arab, Chinese, Indian, Korean and Pakistani merchants operate in the same area. You could even have chosen a photograph from a moment when Paraguay's police SWAT squad was conducting one of its frequent operations on contrabandistas. But then Howard and Dangl's thesis would have been shown to be baseless.

In any case, there are also cases of Egyptian, Syrian and Lebanese jihadists who have been arrested in the TBA. But Howard and Dangl mention none of that in their article, because their whole case rests on the notion that there are only "rumors" of terrorist groups ever having operated in the region. Nonsense. There may be no smoking gun, because it is unrealistic to expect such groups to operate out in the open. But contrary to what Howard and Dangl argue, there is a compelling body of evidence that they would have known about had they bothered to dig deeper and not let their ideological convictions get in the way of the facts on the ground.

My own reporting in the TBA has been based in part on interviews with police and intelligence officials from all three of the countries that share the border, plus intelligence officials from four other countries with strategic or commercial interests in the region. In addition, I've talked to merchants, bankers, imams and even some of the people who have been named as Islamic extremists, as well as their relatives and business associates. If Howard and Dangl are newbies who don't have the time or the inclination to cultivate such contacts, their failures shouldn't be held against the rest of us who have made that effort and discovered things apparently beyond their narrow reach.

I would also caution against relying on Luiz Muniz Bandeira, cited by Howard and Dangl, as a source on anything related to the United States. I've read many of Moniz Bandeira's books, and his thesis always boils down to this: those nasty gringos have been scheming since the 18th Century to frustrate and block Brazil's efforts to become the great nation that it is destined to be. So asking his opinion about any issue involving the United States is like asking Richard Pipes to evaluate the Soviet Union or Norman Podhoretz to talk about Iran. You don't get a thoughtful or measured analysis, only an expression of prejudice and bias.

The Brazilian press, in fact, has quoted Moniz Bandeira as speculating that the September 11 terrorist attacks may well have been organized by the United States itself. More recently, he has argued that environmental groups working in the Amazon (like Greenpeace and the WWF) are actually fronts that take their orders from large multinationals and intelligence services, part of a plot to internationalize that region and prevent Brazil from becoming the world's leading agricultural exporter. In view of those bizarre and paranoid notions, why would Howard and Dangl want to parrot his hypothesis that "U.S. agents plant stories in the media about Arab terrorists in the Triple Frontier to provoke terrorism and justify their military presence" in the region? This is the Brazilian equivalent of the loony John Birch Society members who in the 1960s saw a Communist under every bed, and it reveals a remarkable ignorance of the way the press really works.

Howard and Dangl conclude by saying that "our job, as conscientious news readers, is to ask for evidence and be skeptical of the hype." Precisely; I couldn't agree more. But in this instance, they are the ones who are the hype-mongers, having ignored or brushed aside any piece of evidence that might undermine their conspiratorial view of history and journalism. I welcome an honest and open debate on news coverage in the TBA, but that is not possible when Howard and Dangle have stacked the deck in what can only be described as a lamentably slipshod, ill-informed and wrongheaded piece of reporting.

I realize that this response is much too long ever to be printed in your publication. But in the interest of promoting precisely the kind of honest, comprehensive and open dialogue that the American public needs (and which Howard and Dangl claim to want), I think it would be helpful if you could somehow post this message on your website. I would be happy to respond to any and all serious comments, including those of Howard and Dangl, who to my mind have an awful lot of explaining to do to the readers of your publication.

William Lawrence Rohter, Jr.

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

April Howard and Ben Dangl reply:

When Larry Rohter accuses us of using Rumsfeld’s tactic of building a hypothesis before finding evidence, he misses our point: If the unproven hypothesis that there is terrorism in the Triple Border Area has already been made, it is the media’s job to make the opposite hypothesis as well. Rather than building a hypothesis, we traveled to the city first, operating on the belief that the city should be "innocent until proven guilty."

We found that the media coverage of Ciudad del Este has often been sensationalist, orientalist, and not grounded in enough hard evidence. As media critics, we think the story deserves higher standards. It’s important to point out here that Rohter’s articles on the TBA were a few of many sources we drew from in our article. Some of the articles were better, others were worse.

In the first part of our article, we critique the orientalist language used to describe the city and the inconclusive language of the accusations against it. Rohter’s letter cites only Argentine officials who mentioned "places to which [they] believe the jihadists had decamped" (our emphasis). Belief does not carry the weight of hard evidence.

Though we did not cite them all, we consulted a number of lawyers, human rights officials, politicians and military analysts to come to our conclusions. In our article, we also went to sources that are often overlooked by other media: the Paraguayan people who work and live in the streets of Ciudad del Este, workers, farmers, and students. As these are the people who would bear part of the brunt of any military action against the alleged terrorist activity in the area, we knew it was important to share their views. Our article represents those opinions we heard over and over again: that there is no terrorist connection to the region, and that the mainstream media and Washington are inventing reasons to say that there is. Even some sources who we found to be extremely racist in their remarks about the Middle Eastern population of Ciudad del Este and Foz de Iguacu could not bring themselves to commit to the theory that this population is participating in terrorist activities.

Of concern to us are Rohter’s statements about links between Iran and Hezbollah and bombings in Argentina in 1992 and 1994. In a recent article in the Nation magazine, Gareth Porter writes that "after spending several months interviewing officials at the U.S. embassy in Buenos Aires familiar with the Argentine investigation, the head of the FBI team that assisted it and the most knowledgeable independent Argentine investigator of the case," he found "no real evidence has ever been found to implicate Iran in the bombings." Also up for interpretation is the designation of Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. For example, Russia and the European Union do not designate Hezbollah as a terrorist organization.

Porter calls the accusations a "propaganda campaign," based on a vote by the General Assembly of Interpol last November. "[It] was pressure from the Bush Administration, along with Israeli and Argentine diplomats, that secured the Interpol vote," Porter found. "In fact," Porter points out, "the Bush administration's manipulation of the Argentine bombing case is perfectly in line with its long practice of using distorting and manufactured evidence to build a case against its geopolitical enemies.” We invite Rohter and other readers interested in this aspect of the issue to consult this well researched and thorough article:

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of our findings was that the U.S. government was using the shaky evidence presented in media reports as proof of a terrorist presence. As we wrote in our article, "The Federal Research Division of the Library of Congress released an official report (7/03) titled Terrorist and Organized Crime Groups in the Tri-Border Area (TBA) of South America. . . . Using media reports (among them the New Yorker, New York Times and L.A. Times articles cited above) as its conclusive evidence of terrorist groups in the region, the report concluded . . . that ‘various Islamic terrorist groups, including the Egyptian Al-Jihad (Islamic Jihad) and Al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya (Islamic Group), Hamas, Hezbollah and Al-Qaeda, probably have a presence in the TBA; Hezbollah and Al-Qaeda are probably cooperating in the region, but definitive proof of this collaboration, in the form of a specific document, did not surface in this review.’ Indeed," we wrote, "proof that the Shiite Hezbollah was working with the ferociously anti-Shiite Al-Qaeda would be remarkable news."

If Rohter would return to our article, he would find incorrect his accusations that we do not cite articles about Hezbollah from after 2002. The articles we cited from 2001, 2002, 2003, 2005, 2006 and 2007 clearly show that Washington has made unsubstantiated assumptions.

Rohter’s critiques of our use of the Brazilian historian Luiz Moniz Bandeira as a source have to do with fundamentally different views of Washington’s goals in the region. We agree with Bandeira that Washington and many U.S. corporations have indeed blocked the entire region’s efforts to progress and develop independently. For decades, Washington has been interested in having a strong military and political presence in Latin America regardless of who is in power. Massive protest movements which gained ground at the turn of the century, as well as the increasing weight of leftist political parties, have been an ongoing cause for concern among Bush administration officials. We are also unsure of the meaning of Rohter’s reference to Richard Pipes, who has 22 bylines in New York Times articles on the Soviet Union or Russia.

Rohter is approaching the issue from a different standpoint than we do. Whereas Rohter appears to argue that as evidence is lacking that there aren’t “jihadist” operations occurring, then we should assume that there are, we argue that if evidence is lacking to prove that “terrorist” organizations have been in the TBA, then the media and public should be wary of assuming that there is.