Why is a journalist pushing questionable stories from behind the scenes?
Did self-styled anti-terrorism expert Steven Emerson help push the world toward nuclear war?
On Sunday, June 28, a sensational story appeared in the British newspaper the Observer: “Pakistan was planning nuclear first strike on India.” The stunning revelation that South Asia was on the brink of thermonuclear war was credited to an unnamed “senior Pakistani weapons scientist who has defected.” The next day, papers on the Indian subcontinent were full of the news. Shock spread and distrust mounted. “The scenario is frightening,” stated the Times of India (6/29/98).
On Wednesday, July 1, a USA Today report by Barbara Slavin named the defector, Iftikhar Chaudhry Khan. The press scrambled to contact New York lawyer Michael Wildes, who represents Khan in his attempt to get political asylum.
Emerson, in an odd role for a journalist, worked behind the scenes to interest reporters in Wildes’ client. A top network news producer says his congressional sources and news contacts were tipped to the story by Emerson. Slavin says she was mainly convinced of the story’s legitimacy because of one of the Observer‘s three writers was associated with the prestigious military analysis group Jane’s, but that Emerson’s involvement added credibility. Attorney Wildes himself says, “Emerson was helpful in corroborating information and making scientific clarifications.”
As the story matured, skepticism mounted about Khan, especially after sources in Pakistan described him as “a former low-level accountant at a company that makes bathroom fixtures” (San Diego Union-Tribune, 7/3/98). By July 7, U.S. nuclear physicists had interviewed Khan and pronounced him a fraud (USA Today, 7/7/98).
Emerson has escaped notice in the affair–but his efforts had helped craft a hard-to-erase public perception that Pakistan was the bad guy among Asia’s nuclear novices.
The role Emerson played may at first seem perplexing. He presents himself as a journalist, yet he handed off what appeared to be a major story to rivals. A closer look at Emerson’s career suggests his priority is not so much news as it is an unrelenting attack against Arabs and Muslims. From this perspective, his gambit with Khan seems easier to understand: Pakistan is a Muslim nation, while India’s nuclear program has long been linked to Israel. As the Indian Express noted (6/29/98), Pakistani politicians were “convinced that they were about to be attacked by India, possibly with Israeli assistance.”
Emerson’s willingness to push an extremely thin story–with potentially explosive consequences–is also consistent with the lengthy list of mistakes and distortions that mar his credentials as an expert on terrorism.
Those blemishes had, for a time, seemed to drive Emerson from major news outlets. He has had to resort to new tactics to maintain his anti-Muslim crusade–an “anti-terrorism” journal that he uses as a soapbox, associates whose reputations aren’t as damaged as his, and, as in the Khan episode, staying behind the curtains.
Emerson was back in the news last August–when terrorist bombs shattered U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. While most Americans watched the grisly nightly news in open-mouthed dismay, self-styled anti-terrorism experts seemed to be jostling with one another to grab a few minutes on Rivera Live, the Today show and CNN. For a brief few days, they even displaced the Monicagate pundits.
In the vanguard of the chattering heads was Emerson, whose past errors were quickly forgotten in the wake of African and Middle Eastern carnage.
“Middle Eastern Trait”
Emerson gained prominence in the early ’90s. He published books, wrote articles, produced a documentary, won awards and was frequently quoted. The media, Capitol Hill and scholars paid attention. “I respect his research. He gets to people who were at the events,” says Jeffrey T. Richelson, author of A Century of Spies.
As Emerson’s fame mounted, so did criticism. Emerson’s book, The Fall of Pan Am 103, was chastised by the Columbia Journalism Review, which noted in July 1990 that passages “bear a striking resemblance, in both substance and style” to reports in the Post-Standard of Syracuse, N.Y. Reporters from the Syracuse newspaper told this writer that they cornered Emerson at an Investigative Reporters and Editors conference and forced an apology.
A New York Times review (5/19/91) of his 1991 book Terrorist chided that it was “marred by factual errors…and by a pervasive anti-Arab and anti-Palestinian bias.” His 1994 PBS video, Jihad in America (11/94), was faulted for bigotry and misrepresentations–veteran reporter Robert Friedman (Nation, 5/15/95) accused Emerson of “creating mass hysteria against American Arabs.”
Emerson was wrong when he initially pointed to Yugoslavians as suspects in the World Trade Center bombing (CNN, 3/2/93). He was wrong when he said on CNBC (8/23/96) that “it was a bomb that brought down TWA Flight 800.”
Emerson’s most notorious gaffe was his claim that the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing showed “a Middle Eastern trait” because it “was done with the intent to inflict as many casualties as possible.” (CBS News, 4/19/95) Afterward, news organizations appeared less interested in Emerson’s pronouncements. A CBS contract expired and wasn’t renewed. Emerson had been a regular source and occasional writer for the Washington Post; his name doesn’t turn up once in Post archives after January 1, 1996. USA Today mentioned Emerson a dozen times before September 1996, none after.
“He’s poison,” says investigative author Seymour Hersh, when asked about how Emerson is perceived by fellow journalists.
Yet Emerson seems irrepressible. In 1997, for example, an Associated Press editor became convinced that Emerson was the “mother lode of terrorism information,” according to a reporter who worked on a series that looked at American Muslim groups.
As a consultant on the series, Emerson presented AP reporters with what were “supposed to be FBI documents” describing mainstream American Muslim groups with alleged terrorist sympathies, according to the project’s lead writer, Richard Cole. One of the reporters uncovered an earlier, almost identical document authored by Emerson. The purported FBI dossier “was really his,” Cole says. “He had edited out all phrases, taken out anything that made it look like his.”
Another AP reporter, Fred Bayles, recalls that Emerson “could never back up what he said. We couldn’t believe that document was from the FBI files.”
Emerson’s contribution was largely stripped from the series, and he retaliated with a “multi-page rant,” according to Cole. AP executive editor Bill Ahearn does not dispute that the incident happened, but refuses to comment or to release documents because the episode was deemed an “internal matter.” A ranking AP editor in Washington says: “We would be very, very, very, very leery of using Steve Emerson.”
Also during Emerson’s lean years, he scored a November 1996 hit in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (11/3/96)–owned by right-wing Clinton-basher Richard Mellon Scaife, who also partially funded Jihad in America. Considering Scaife’s patronage, it is not surprising that Emerson declared that Muslim terrorist sympathizers were hanging out at the White House. Emerson had a similar commentary piece printed three months earlier in the Wall Street Journal (8/5/96), one of the writer’s few consistent major outlets.
His most fruitful media foray during this period was at a Tampa, Florida, newspaper. Emerson’s Jihad in America video had, in part, targeted Islamic scholars at the University of South Florida in Tampa. Following Emerson’s leads, a reporter for the Tampa Tribune launched a series of articles in 1995 titled “Ties to Terrorists.” The series and subsequent articles relied on Emerson as a primary source.
The Tribune‘s managing editor, Bruce Witwer, wrote in a July 15, 1997, letter to an attorney: “Emerson is an acknowledged expert in the field, while he may be controversial. Emerson has the information. It is legitimate information.” But the information that Emerson is “controversial”–much less Emerson’s record of mistakes and the allegations of bias that swirl around him–has never been disclosed by the Tribune to its readers.
The Tribune‘s articles lacked balance and fairness, according to other newspapers that have covered the events, including the St. Petersburg Times and the Miami Herald. The Herald (3/22/98) ran a lengthy analysis of the Tribune‘s reporting and concluded the Tampa newspaper had ignored “perfectly innocent” interpretations of activity, giving vent only to characterizations that suggested “extremely dark forces were on the prowl.”
Among the Tribune‘s and Emerson’s charges are that Muslims, while at the University of South Florida, were active Islamic Jihad commanders. Emerson told Congress: “One of the world’s most lethal terrorist factions was based out of Tampa.” If that’s so, federal agents must have missed something. Although the FBI and INS have been searching for clues for more than three years, no charges have been filed.
Like Emerson, the Tribune uses tenuous chains of association to bolster its claims that individuals are linked to terrorist groups. For example, in one article, the Tribune claimed that because an Islamic Jihad leader had given a Reuters reporter, Paul Eedle, several articles, including one interview published in a Tampa magazine, and because material seized by federal agents in Tampa included a 1993 Jihad calendar, this proved an organizational linkage. The Tribune (7/28/98), ignoring the stated purpose of the South Florida scholars to collect material about and from all Middle East points of view, stated: “Eedle’s experience appears to tighten the relationship between the Jihad and the Tampa group.”
Eedle, when interviewed for this article, said that while it was clear people in Tampa were sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, “being given the magazine didn’t prove that there was any organizational link between Islamic Jihad and the publishers of the magazine in Tampa.”
Although no criminal charges have been filed in the Tampa case, Emerson flatly states there is insidious wrongdoing. In February 1996, Emerson claimed that Tampa Muslim academics were directly involved in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing (St. Petersburg Times, 2/10/96). “I am constrained at this point from revealing some of those details,” Emerson said. “But they include money transfers, they include actual reservations and planning for the conspirators in the bombing, and they include visits back and forth between Tampa and New York and New Jersey, between officials here of the groups [operating in Tampa] and officials there.”
Yet no federal record of such allegations could be found. A Freedom of Information request to the Justice Department seeking any information tying Tampa residents to the World Trade Center bombing produced this reply from the Office of the Deputy Attorney General: “Please be advised that no responsive records were located.”
Actions have been taken against a couple of Emerson’s targets. Emerson seemed to gloat (Miami Herald, 3/22/98) that one Tampa academic, Mazen Al-Najjar, has been jailed during a deportation appeal since May 1997 based on secret evidence that he is a national security threat. And he appeared gleeful that another University of South Florida professor, Sami Al-Arian, was removed from the classroom and is now unable to “propagate his message to young students” (Miami Herald, 3/22/98). Typical of Emerson’s fact-checking, the university says no one has ever alleged that Al-Arian, who is again teaching, brought politics into the classroom.
This summer’s U.S. embassy bombings produced others who believed in Emerson’s legitimacy. Geraldo welcomed Emerson, as did NPR, Good Morning America and MSNBC‘s Internight. Emerson popped an opinion piece into the Wall Street Journal (8/8/98), that attacked Clinton for “legitimizing self-declared ‘civil rights’ and ‘mainstream’ Islamic organizations that in fact operate as propaganda and political arms of Islamic fundamentalist movements.”
Although he piously prefaces diatribes by saying there are good Muslims and bad Muslims, it’s a hollow defense. He claimed, in a March 1995 article in Jewish Monthly, that Islam “sanctions genocide, planned genocide, as part of its religious doctrine.”
Occasionally, Emerson outdoes himself with hyperbole. In an inflammatory letter to the Voice of America (12/2/94), he fumed that radical Muslims in the United States are plotting the “mass murder of all Jews, Christians and moderate Muslims.” Buddhists, Wiccans and Scientologists are apparently exempt in the apocalypse Emerson prophesies. Last year he warned that “the U.S. has become occupied fundamentalist territory” (Jerusalem Post, 8/8/97).
While Emerson makes incredible claims about Muslim conspiracies that purportedly intend to commit terrorism inside U.S. borders, he ignores the fact that far more of these American atrocities, such as the anti-abortion bombings and murders, are committed by apple-pie militant Christian fundamentalists.
His denunciations are often backed up only by allusions to unnamed law enforcement sources. “Emerson makes unsubstantiated allegations of widespread conspiracies in Arab-American communities and brushes aside his lack of documented evidence by implying it only proves how clever and sinister the Arab/Muslim menace really is,” investigative reporter Chip Berlet has written (Covert Action Quarterly, Summer/95). “This is a prejudiced and Arabaphobic twist on the old anti-Semitic canard of the crafty and manipulative Jew.”
Emerson buffs, such as Sen. Jon Kyl (R.-Arizona), provide the journalist with a podium from which to make claims that are then recycled as part of the public record. A Kyl subcommittee welcomed Emerson as a witness in February, allowing him to present a 46-page harangue against mainstream American Muslim organizations.
When criticized by journalists, Emerson retaliates with invective-laden letters, often from lawyers. He has launched salvos at the Miami Herald, The Nation, Voice of America, FAIR (which publishes Extra!) and a Council on Foreign Relations newsletter, as well as at numerous individual journalists.
Kojo Nnamdi, a talkshow host on Howard University’s WHUT, remembers that when he invited some Muslims on a program, “Emerson started making threats. He wanted to link academics to terrorists. He succeeded in delaying the program, I’m sorry to say.”
After Emerson in 1996 attacked the Council on Foreign Relations for including Muslim points of views in its newsletter, the group’s president, Leslie Gelb, dubbed Emerson the “grand inquisitor” (Forward, 5/10/96).
The Miami Herald‘s highly regarded senior writer, Martin Merzer–who has experience as a bureau chief in Jerusalem–demolished many of Emerson’s and the Tampa Tribune‘s claims in a March 1998 article (3/22/98). Prior to publication, Emerson sent a letter to the Herald‘s top editor, Doug Clifton, with copies to Jewish leaders, in an attempt to derail the story. The letter called Merzer, who is Jewish, “nothing short of racist.”
Subsequently, in a publication run by Emerson allies that has become his bully pulpit, the Journal of Counterterrorism & Security International (Spring/98), Emerson published what he claimed was a transcript of his interview by Merzer. The “transcript” presents Merzer as stammering and admitting to extraordinary ignorance. Merzer calls the transcript a fabrication. “It’s crap,” he says. “A few tiny kernels of truth surrounded by a mountain of lies.”
Ironically, despite Emerson’s many attempts to silence his critics, he spends much of his time nowadays wailing that he’s the victim. Recently, an NPR producer was moved by protests over Emerson’s anti-Muslim prejudice to stop using him as an expert on the network. That prompted Emerson fans, such as Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby (8/31/98), to cry “blacklisting”–never bothering to note that Emerson is a blacklister with few rivals.
As recognition of Emerson’s liabilities has grown, he has handed his bullhorn to less controversial fellow travelers. Retired federal agents Oliver “Buck” Revell and Steve Pomerantz, who run a security business, showed up echoing Emersonisms in an October 31 Washington Post article warning of conspiracies and front organizations.
In an interview prior to the article’s publication, the co-author of that piece, John Mintz, said he was aware that Emerson was highly controversial. The Post‘s solution: Don’t mention Emerson but use his allies. (Mintz had been provided with material documenting links among Emerson, Pomerantz and Revell.)
The three “experts” spend a lot of time congratulating each other on their courage and expertise. Pomerantz, for example, has written that Emerson “is actually better informed in some areas than the responsible agencies of government.” (That came as news to Bob Blitzer, the FBI’s top counterterrorism official, who says Emerson “doesn’t have access to any high-level FBI intelligence.”)
Revell’s credits include quashing an investigation of the Iran-Contra arms smuggling operation (Leslie Cockburn, Out of Control, p. 231). Revell also acknowledges another member of the fraternity is Yigal Carmon, a right-wing Israeli intelligence commander who endorsed the use of torture (Washington Post, 5/4/95), and who has stayed at Emerson’s Washington apartment on trips to lobby Congress against Middle East peace initiatives (The Nation, 5/15/95). An Associated Press reporter who has dealt with Emerson and Carmon says: “I have no doubt these guys are working together.”
Says Vince Cannistraro, an ABC consultant and a retired CIA counterterrorism official, of Emerson’s allies, Pomerantz, Revell and Carmon: “They’re Israeli-funded. How do I know that? Because they tried to recruit me.” Revell denies Cannistraro’s assertion, but refuses to discuss his group’s finances.
Emerson’s own financing is hazy. He has received funding from Scaife. Some Emerson critics suspect Israeli backing. The Jerusalem Post (9/17/94) has noted that Emerson has “close ties to Israeli intelligence.”
“He’s carrying the ball for Likud,” says investigative journalist Robert Parry, referring to Israel’s right-wing ruling party. Victor Ostrovsky, who defected from Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency and has written books disclosing its secrets, calls Emerson “the horn”–because he trumpets Mossad claims.
Emerson is aided by those who appear to be ignorant of his record, or who fear reprisal from his backers. He testified in February before a Senate subcommittee chaired by Sen. Kyl. The testimony accused most major American Muslim organization of terrorist connections. “We presumed him to be credible [because] he is known to have contact with street agents,” said Jim Savage, at the time a Kyl staffer. “He represented his findings as authentic. We haven’t verified them.”
After the NPR spat over the summer, Jacoby’s column quickly bludgeoned the network into capitulation. Jeffrey Dvorkin, NPR‘s news chief, kowtowed and stated in a letter to the Boston Globe that Emerson “has never been banned from NPR and never will be. Emerson is one of many commentators available to NPR on events involving his area of expertise (terrorism and counter-terrorism). No doubt there will be other opportunities for him to appear again.”
A warning to us all.
Emerson on Islam
“The level of vitriol against Jews and Christianity within contemporary Islam, unfortunately, is something that we are not totally cognizant of, or that we don’t want to accept. We don’t want to accept it because to do so would be to acknowledge that one of the world’s great religions — which has more than 1.4 billion adherents — somehow sanctions genocide, planned genocide, as part of its religious doctrine.” –Steven Emerson, Jewish Monthly (3/95)
John F. Sugg is senior editor of the Weekly Planet, the alternative newspaper in the Tampa Bay area. He regularly writes media criticism, including articles on Steven Emerson and the Tampa Tribune‘s coverage of Muslims. Sugg has received three threatening letters from Emerson’s lawyer seeking–unsuccessfully–to deter further reporting.