Mar 1 2008

Letter Exchange

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

I’m not in a position to speak for or about other American reporters or newspapers that have written about the Tri-Border Area (TBA) and its ties to Islamic extremist groups. But since April Howard and Benjamin Dangl refer to one of my articles (New York Times, 12/15/02) in the oh-so-snide first paragraph of their report (“City of Terror: Painting Paraguay’s ‘Casbah’ as Terror Central,” Extra!, 9-10/07), 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 TBA 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.

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 TBA 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.

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 attaché 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.

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.

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 Dangl have stacked the deck in what can only be described as a lamentably slipshod, ill-informed and wrongheaded piece of reporting.

—William Lawrence Rohter, Jr.

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

April Howard and Ben Dangl reply:

Larry Rohter misses the point of our article: 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.

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.

Regarding links between Iran and Hezbollah and bombings in Argentina in 1992 and 1994, in a recent article in the Nation (2/4/08), 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 concluded “no real evidence has ever been found to implicate Iran in the bombings.”

A longer version of this exchange is available here.