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Media Smackdown

July 6th, 2004 5:05 PM

Will Isikoff Finally Knock-It-Off?

Never mind that the New York Times has already asserted that all the facts in “Fahrenheit 9/11” check-out (see Philip Shenon’s “ Will Michael Moore’s Facts Check Out?”), Newsweek’s chief investigative reporter Michael Isikoff has made it his mission to discredit the film.? After issuing a sharp response to Isikoff’s first swipe at the film (“Under the Hot Lights,” Newsweek, June 28th), Craig Unger, author of “House of Bush, House of Saud,” is back to expose Isikoff’s latest distortions. ? Here is Unger's point-by-point clarification (The following is also available on his website


The Newsweek-Fahrenheit Wars, Part 3

July 3, 2004

How Many Mistakes Can Newsweek's Michael Isikoff Make?

by Craig Unger

How many mistakes can Michael Isikoff make? In his zealous campaign to discredit Fahrenheit 9/11, Newsweek's star investigative reporter has already made at least seven errors, distortions and selective omissions of crucial information.

Let's take them one by one.

1) In his first Newsweek piece attacking the movie, "Under the Hot Lights," which appeared in theJune 28 issue of the magazine, Isikoff asserts that I claim "that bin Laden family members were never interviewed by the FBI." Isikoff proceeds to attack me for that claim. Unfortunately for him, I never made it. Isikoff's assertion is a complete fabrication.

2) The same article also erroneously reports that the Saudi evacuation "flights didn't begin untilSept. 14—after airspace reopened." As House of Bush, House of Saud notes, however, the first flight actually took place a day earlier, on September 13, when restrictions on private planes were still in place. Isikoff knew this. I even gave him the names of two men who were on that flight-- Dan Grossi and Manuel Perez-- and told him how to get in touch with them. Earlier, Jean Heller, a reporter for the St. Petersburg Times, took the time to follow up on my reporting. She called Grossi, and in her subsequent article wrote, "Grossi did say that Unger's account of his participation in the flight is accurate."

Rather than try to refute or corroborate my reporting, however, Isikoff omitted it entirely. The facts interfered with his argument.

It is worth noting that Jean Heller was also able to obtain verification of the September 13 flight from other sources as well. Heller reports that the flight from Tampa, Florida to Lexington, Kentucky, has finally been corroborated by authorities at Tampa International Airport--even though the White House, the FBI and the FBI repeatedly denied that any such flights took place.

3) A week after "Under theHot Lights" appeared, Newsweek apologized for fabrication number one in its print edition of the magazine. But the error remains uncorrected online where it continues to be desseminated by other media.

Worse, in its "apology," Newsweek amplified the distortion it made the previous week. This time, the magazine admits that the September 13 flight did take place. But the editors again omit crucial information in order to suggest that the flight is a red herring, asserting that the flight "took off late on Sept. 13 after restrictions on flying had already been lifted," Newsweek says.

In fact, some restrictions had been lifted--but not all. Commercial aviation slowly resumed on September 13, but at 10:57 am that day, the Federal Aviation Administration issued a Notice to Airmen stating that private aviation was still banned. Three planes violated that order and were forced down by American military aircraft that day. (See House of Bush, House of Saud, p. 9) Yet the Saudis were allowed to fly on the ten passenger Learjet. Far from being irrelevant, the Tampa to Lexington flight is vital because it required permission from the highest levels of our government. Once again, all this information is in the book, and Isikoff told me he had read it. This relevant information contradicted Isikoff's thesis.

If you think about it, Isikoff's argument defies logic. Hundreds of thousands of planes fly each day. If the Tampa to Lexington flight was just another normal flight, why would anyone go to a crisis-stricken White House to get permission for the Saudis to fly? Yet thanks to Richard Clarke's testimony before the 9/11 Commission, we know that the White House did grant permission for the Saudis to fly.

4) On June 30, Isikoff was at it again, this time in an online story co-written with Mark Hosenball, "More Distortions from Michael Moore." (link).

If the basics of journalism are important to you, it is worth pointing out that Isikoff's story confuses Carlyle founding partner David Rubenstein with public relations legend Howard Rubenstein. This is just one of three names (William Kennard and Caterair are the others) Isikoff gets wrong in the story. (The article has since been corrected online.)

5)More to the point, Isikoff's chief target is the movie's assertion that $1.4 billion in Saudi funds went to businesses tied to the Bushes and their friends. As Isikoff notes, House of Bush, House of Saud is the chief source for this information.

Most of this figure comes from defense contracts to companies owned by the Carlyle Group in the mid-nineties, and according to Isikoff, therein lies the problem. “The movie clearly implies that the Saudis gave $1.4 billion to the Bushes and their friends,” Carlyle public relations executive Chris Ullman tells Newsweek. “ But most of it went to a Carlyle Group company before [former president George H.W.] Bush even joined the firm.”

Isikoff accepts Ullman's explanation almost uncritically, leaving the reader with the impression that the Bush family and its allies had little or no relationship with the Carlyle Group until 1998. If that were true, he might have a point.

But in fact, the Bush-Carlyle relationship began eight years earlier when the Carlyle Group put George W.Bush on the board of one of its subsidiaries, Caterair, in 1990. In 1993, after the Bush-Quayle administration left office and George H. W. Bush and James Baker were free to join the private sector, the Bush family's relationship with the Carlyle Group began to become substantive.

By the end of that year, key figures at the Carlyle Group included such powerful Bush colleagues as James Baker, Frank Carlucci, and Richard Darman. Because George W. Bush's role at Carlyle had been marginal, the $1.4 billion figure includes no contracts that predated the arrival of Baker, Carlucci and Darman at Carlyle. (These figures are itemized in the appendix of House of Bush.) With former Secretary of Defense Carlucci guiding the acquisition of defense companies, Carlyle finally began making real money from the Saudis, both through investments from the royal family, the bin Ladens and other members of the Saudi elite, and through lucrative defense investments.

6) In addition, Isikoff erroneously dismisses the relationship between the Bushes and the House of Saud at the Carlyle Group as a distant one. "Six degrees of separation" is the term he uses. Yet according to a December 4, 2003 email from Carlyle's Chris Ullman, James Baker and George H. W. Bush made four trips to Saudi Arabia on Carlyle's behalf, and that does not include meetings they had with Saudis that took place in the U.S. During the course of these trips, Ullman says, former president Bush sometimes met privately with members of the Saudi Binladen Group. At times, Carlyle officials have characterized these meetings as "ceremonial." But in fact, at least $80 million in investments came from the House of Saud and allies such as the bin Laden family. It would be unseemly-- and unnecessary--for former president Bush or James Baker to actually ask for money from the Saudis at such meetings. Instead, David Rubenstein's team did that after Bush and Baker spoke. For a more complete account of this, see Chapter Ten in House of Bush, House of Saud.

7) In the same article, Isikoff tries to pit me against Michael Moore by asserting that my book, unlike the movie, concludes that the role of James Bath, a Texas businessman who represented Saudis and was close to George W. Bush, was not terribly significant. Isikoff writes,"The movie—which relied heavily on Unger’s book—fails to note the author’s conclusion about what to make of the supposed Bin Laden-Bath-Bush nexus: that it may not mean anything."

Isikoff is wrong again. It is true that no conclusive evidence has yet answered the specific question of whether or not bin Laden money actually went from the bin Ladens to Bath and then into George W. Bush's first oil company, Arbusto. But beyond that unresolved issue, the bin Laden-Bath-Bush nexus is crucial to the birth of the Bush-Saudi relationship. Even if bin Laden money did not go into Arbusto, Bath introduced Salem bin Laden and his good friend Khalid bin Mahfouz to Texas. A host of contacts between them and the House of Bush ensued. Bin Mahfouz shared financial interests with James Baker. His associates bailed out Harken Energy, where George W. Bush made his first fortune. Money from both the bin Ladens and the bin Mahfouzes ended up in Carlyle. This relationship is what House of Bush is about. Isikoff cherry-picks information that suits his agenda and leaves out the rest.

In his assault against Fahrenheit, Isikoff does raise one provocative question, one that many other people have asked. If the Saudi evacuation flights are so wrong, how is it that former counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke, a fierce critic of the Bush White House,has not had any problems with them. "I thought the flights were correct,”Clarke said. “The Saudis had reasonable fear that they might be the subject of vigilante attacks in the United States after 9/11. And there is no evidence even to this date that any of the people who left on those flights were people of interest to the FBI.”

It is a fair question and it deserves a serious answer.

If there is a hero in House of Bush, it is Richard Clarke, a man who understood Al-Qaeda's new transnational form of terrorism and developed a forceful strategy against it, but who was thwarted in both the Clinton Administration (thanks to the Lewinsky scandal) and in the Bush administration (by being left out of the loop).

But Clarke is also a brilliant and savvy bureaucrat who is unlikely to characterize decisions in which he played a role as stupid or wrong. And much as I admire him, I disagree with him on this issue.

When first interviewed on this subject in 2003, Clarke said that his approval for evacuating the Saudis had been conditional on the FBI’ s vetting them. “I asked [the F.B.I.] to make sure that no one inappropriate was leaving. I asked them if they had any objection to Saudis leaving the country at a time when aircraft were banned from flying.” He noted that he assumed the F.B.I. had vetted the bin Ladens prior to September 11.

Then he added, “I have no idea if they did a good job. I'm not in any position to second guess the FBI.”

And there's the rub. Given the long history of errors made by the FBI in investigating counterterrorism, how can one possibly accept their infallibility as unquestioningly as Isikoff does.I interviewed two FBI agents who participated in the Saudi evacuation and they made it clear that they did not subject the passengers to a formal criminal investigation. One rather astonishing finding of the 9/11 Commission is that though the rubble was still very much ablaze at the World Trade Center a few days after the attacks, the FBI did not even bother to check the Saudi passenger lists against its terror watch lists.

There are many other unanswered questions. "It is clear that the Saudi charities were being used as cover for Al Qaeda, but it is unclear how far up the chain of authority that went," Clarke said. Do we know for certain none of the Saudis on the flights could have shed light on that crucial question? Were any of them tied to the charities in question? Did any of them have any information on bin Laden? Did we let a treasure trove of intelligence leave?

Finally, it is still unclear whether other people in the White House had knowledge. Do the president and his men bear no responsibility for leading a thorough criminal investigation into the worst crime in in American history?

Perhaps we will never know the answers to all these questions. But American journalists have a responsiblity to try to uncover the facts rather than muddy the waters-- and that includes Michael Isikoff.

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