Subject to Debat: Did ABC Know About Its Expert's Sourcing Problem?

The network says it acted quickly when it discovered consultant Alexis Debat had misrepresented his credentials. But sources say a real investigation of his work is beginning only now.

| Fri Sep. 14, 2007 2:00 AM EDT

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.

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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 respects—claiming 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 the French Embassy prepared about Debat—whose claims to be a former government official have apparently long irritated the government in Paris—outlining 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 years—even 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 stories—including some that Debat brought the network—at 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.

The two key questions to ask ABC, one source familiar with Ross' unit who asked to speak on background, are: "How is ABC investigating the information: Is it only being investigated by the Ross unit, or are outside reporters doing it? And in vetting or second-sourcing information brought to the network [by Debat], were resources outside of the Ross unit used?" Sources, and the AP reported late Thursday that ABC was sending long time Ross producer Rhonda Schwartz to Pakistan to investigate some of Debat's stories.

Overall, the picture of Debat that emerges from these interviews is of a smart, ambitious and cunning operator who would claim to be getting text messages from Middle Eastern intelligence operatives while at meetings with Ross and others at ABC, with tips that seemed too good to be true (which some colleagues believe were bogus), yet were used as "exclusives."

Sources provided multiple examples of stories that Ross—often with Debat's contributions—reported, only to be forced to run a correction the next day. For instance, one source noted, on September 5 last year, Ross reported that a Pakistani general had said that Pakistan would leave Osama bin Laden alone as long as he didn't cause any trouble. The Pakistani government angrily denied it, and the next day the ABC investigative unit's blog, the Blotter ran a correction.

Another ABC news story largely sourced to Debat – claiming that the U.S. government was advising and encouraging an Iranian Baluchi separatist group Jundullah which was carrying out attacks against the Iranian regime – was followed by an ABC report the next day carrying a "sharply-worded" denunciation from the Pakistani government.

One ethical issue raised by ABC's handling of Debat concerns the investigative unit's use of paid sources/consultants, who are often put on monthly retainer. But in ABC's use of Debat as a paid "consultant" who also had for the past year and a half an appointment at the Nixon Center, ABC also frequently had him reporting on its blog, the Blotter, and appearing as a "source" inside others' stories, blurring the line between source (and a paid one at that, with outside -- also paid -- affiliations) and a journalist, not clearly identified in the report. ABC also sent Debat frequently abroad, to gather information which he would put on the air and on the investigative unit's website.

Network officials strongly deny that ABC has tried to sweep the Debat matter under the rug, and say they are taking the matter of investigating his stories very seriously. "We acted expeditiously to sever ties with Debat when we could not establish his credentials and we did immediately investigate his work," ABC senior vice president Jeffrey W. Schneider emailed me.

In fact, the French news service AFP reported as far back as 2002 that according to the French government, Debat had never been a defense ministry official. "Alexis Debat, presented by the American [TV] channel ABC as 'a former official at the French Defence Ministry' in the context of the case of [Zacarias] Moussaoui … 'has never belonged' to this ministry," the AFP reported September 6, 2002. According to the annotated Debat CV, he had at one time had a low-rank desk job at the Ministry for less than a year.

And overnight Friday, Riché had a new scoop: a whistleblower inside ABC had alerted the network to its Debat problem, first in complaints to editors, and later, with a memo. "The ABC news reporter tried to alert the management of her network that Alexis Debat was not reliable," Riché reported. "In an email she wrote last May to a researcher in a Washington think tank, she explained she had been 'quietly concerned' about Debat's work for ABC 'for some time.'"