Subject to Debat: What did ABC Know and When Did It Know It?
In the end, it was Pascal Riché, a Paris-based former Washington correspondent for France's Libération newspaper, who uncovered a scandal at a top US television news network. On September 7, Pascal reported that an ABC counterterrorism consultant, Alexis Debat, had faked an interview with Sen. Barack Obama that he published under his name in a French journal, Politique Internationale, and that he had published other alleged interviews in the same journal with Sen. Hillary Clinton, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, former Microsoft chairman Bill Gates, and former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. It turns out, ABC itself later reported, the interviews were apparently fabricated.
Riché also reported that Debat claimed to have a Ph.D. from the Sorbonne that he did not in fact complete, and that he had exaggerated his CV in other respectsclaiming to be an advisor to the French Ministry of Defense on transatlantic issues, for instance, when in fact he had been a lowly desk clerk in the bowels of the ministry for less than a year; claiming to be a visiting professor at Middlebury College, when in fact he had been a visiting instructor for a short winter term at Middlebury, and other such exaggerations. Mother Jones has obtained an annotated CV of Debat'swhose claims to be a former government official have apparently long irritated the government in Parisoutlining these and other discrepancies. (ABC believed the annotated CV was prepared by the French embassy, but sources now say it may have been annotated by a Washington-based French academic.)
Though Debat, often described in the American media as "a former French defense official," insisted he would clear his name and sue Riché and his online magazine Rue89 for slander, the alleged fabricated interviews soon became a problem not just for Debat but for ABC. Since 2002, the network has employed Debat as a counterterrorism consultant and sometimes reporter, sending him to far-flung locations to report on Al Qaeda, Iraq, Iran, and Pakistan. (For the past year and a half, Debat has also served as the director of the terrorism and national security program at the Nixon Center; he resigned "for personal reasons" this week, an official with the Nixon Center said.)
Sources also say that Debat claimed in the spring to have received a "large chunk of money" from the Pentagon to conduct a study concerning radical Islam; when I inquired about the contract, a Defense Department official said he would check into it.
Following Riché's report, ABC publicly announced that it had demanded Debat's resignation in June, after obtaining the annotated CV and investigating his claims to have a doctorate. ABC said it had investigated his reports then, and was undertaking a more extensive investigation upon learning of the fabricated interviews at Politique Internationale, but that to date, it was confident that all of Debat's reports for ABC had been vetted and multiply sourced and were standing up to scrutiny.
Interviews with journalists, think tank associates, and a former government official indicate that there were warning signs about Debat for yearseven within the network itself. Two journalists familiar with Debat's work point to ABC chief investigative correspondent Brian Ross not only as the victim of Debat's alleged deceptions, but as an enabler, who has promoted sensational storiesincluding some that Debat brought the networkat the expense at times of rigorous journalism standards. (Ross did not return Mother Jones' phone call by press time, although an ABC executive has been in touch by phone and email.) They also say that they do not believe ABC has properly investigated Debat's reporting at all.