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06.15.10

NYT Fights Back on Afghan Scoop

Fighting off skeptical, even mocking reactions to a front-page scoop on a $1 trillion mineral discovery in Afghanistan, The New York Times’ Dean Baquet and James Risen tell Lloyd Grove the paper wasn’t used—and other reporters missed the story.

Fighting off skeptical, even mocking reactions to a front-page scoop on a $1 trillion mineral discovery in Afghanistan, The New York Times’ Dean Baquet and James Risen tell Lloyd Grove the paper wasn’t used—and other reporters missed the story. Plus, Bruce Riedel on the Afghan gold rush.

Does The New York Times have rocks in its head?

That’s the trillion-dollar question roaring through the media-political establishment since Monday’s front-page Times article in which Pentagon officials, who otherwise have been coping with bad news from the front, claimed that war-ravaged Afghanistan has at least that amount worth of mineral deposits—especially valuable lithium used in BlackBerry and laptop batteries—ready and waiting to be mined for profit.

Baquet attributed carping in the blogosphere, along with some off-the-record naysaying by American correspondents in Kabul, to sour grapes. “If I were their editors, I would say, ‘Hey, guys, why didn’t you write this story?’”

“There is stunning potential here,” General David Petraeus, head of the United States Central Command fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, was quoted as saying in the article by James Risen. The Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter wrote that the purported discovery, by a Pentagon-led team of geologists in a comprehensive survey, could transform Afghanistan’s struggling, opium-based economy into (per a leaked Pentagon memo) “the Saudi Arabia of lithium.”

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Times Washington bureau chief and assistant managing editor Dean Baquet, who edited Risen’s article, fiercely defended it Tuesday against a barrage of skeptical and even mocking reactions from rival news and opinion outlets. Namely, wasn’t the paper of record a tad credulous to buy the Pentagon’s spin and then give it such prominent display? Wasn’t The Times carrying the Obama administration’s water by allowing itself to be used to justify the U.S. military’s problematic presence in apparent support of Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s corrupt regime? And why now? Isn’t the timing a little, well, convenient? Another thing: Isn’t the claim of Afghanistan’s mineral wealth old news?

“It’s not true that this was widely known,” Baquet told me, responding to assertions in The Atlantic, the Christian Science Monitor, Wired, and other outlets that documents about a so-called Afghan motherlode date back to 2007 and earlier. “The people involved in doing the survey said they were surprised by the extent of it. Criticism from other journalists who claim it was ‘widely known’ is bullshit. Maybe they should have written about it.”

As for the notion that The Times was willingly being used, “That’s also bullshit,” Baquet said, pointing out that the paper has published tough articles in recent days about the United States’ less than perfect ally and Karzai’s corrupt associates.

Risen, for his part, spent much of his day fencing with press critics, sarcastically suggesting to Yahoo News reporter John Cook that “it was back when you were in kindergarten” when Risen shared the 2006 Pulitzer with fellow Timesman Eric Lichtblau for uncovering the Bush administration’s secret wiretapping program.

“If it was widely known, I didn’t know about it,” Risen told me. “As I point out in the story, the U.S. Geological Survey had done some work there up through 2007, but the geologists’ findings had been ignored by the Afghan and American governments” until the Pentagon team got involved last year, dispatching geologists and others to Afghanistan to produce a detailed map of the country’s mineral resources. The trillion-dollar estimate is also new information, he said.

Baquet, meanwhile, said the timing of Risen’s article, during a period of grim news from the war, had nothing to do with the Pentagon’s desire to get some positive spin out of a troubled situation. Nor, Baquet insisted, was the article the product of a Pentagon leak; rather, it was an enterprise piece for which Risen, an investigative reporter who specializes in the intelligence community, labored to interview key players and connect the dots.

“Jim had been working on a bunch of stuff, but some of it had been put in a little bit of limbo. Months ago, he told me he had gotten this tip about the extensive survey work in Afghanistan that had never been done before. So two weeks ago, I told him, why don’t you go back to the Afghanistan mining story and do that one? And that’s it. There was literally no leak.”

Risen—whom the Obama Justice Department, like Bush’s before it, is trying to force to reveal his confidential sources for his 2006 book on the CIA—“is the last person the government would try to get to carry their water,” Baquet said. He attributed carping in the blogosphere, along with some off-the-record naysaying by American correspondents in Kabul, to sour grapes. “If I were their editors, I would say, ‘Hey, guys, why didn’t you write this story?’” Baquet told me, lacing his comments with salty language that he asked me not to quote “because my wife wouldn’t appreciate it.” He suggested that Monday’s Pentagon briefing on Afghan mineral resource—in response to Risen’s article—validated its news value.

Risen, meanwhile, had this to say about the brickbats directed his way: “It’s sort of an occupational hazard at The New York Times. Frankly, I get my bones jumped more than just about any reporter in town—by the best! Dick Cheney was much better at it. Eric Holder is pretty good at it, too.”

Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.