Michael Moynihan

07.01.13

NSA Nutjob: Anatomy of a Fake ‘Observer’ Story

Not only did The Guardian’s sister publication base a cover story—later pulled—on a single paranoid conspiracist, the reporter failed even to speak with him. But the story’s still percolating online, says Michael Moynihan.

For those desiccated journalists old enough to remember, the scandal-plagued presidency of Bill Clinton was the golden age of enterprising conspiracists, imaginative cranks, and swivel-eyed charlatans. Back then, before the Internet allowed for the easy dissemination, repetition, and debunking of sinister nonsense, a certain amount of skill was required to spread conspiracy theories. For Clinton’s tormentors, the most reliable route for dodgy information was the sympathetic foreign reporter. Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, the Washington correspondent for Britain’s august, right-leaning broadsheet The Daily Telegraph, dutifully “raised questions” about the suicide of former White House staffer Vince Foster and the president’s supposed involvement in a cocaine-smuggling ring. The stories were then laundered back into the mainstream American news media (”According to a report in London’s Daily Telegraph...”).

130630-observer-fake-NSA-story-box
Screen Shot from "The Observer".

The Telegraph was—and is—a great newspaper, which is why Evans-Pritchard’s dive into the anti-Clinton fever swamps so annoyed the White House. The Guardian, one of the Telegraph’s left-leaning competitors on Fleet Street, is also a great newspaper, as is its sister publication The Observer. (Both papers are owned by the Guardian Media Group and share a website but have separate editorial staffs). So it’s troubling that The Observer splashed a front-cover story Sunday on the NSA, “Revealed: Secret European Deal to Hand Over Private Data to Americans,” citing a single source named Wayne Madsen.

Shortly after going to press, and after a flood of tweets from outraged readers like me, The Observer realized that the story’s author, Jamie Doward, failed to conduct even the most perfunctory Google search on Madsen. That would have revealed him to be a paranoid conspiracy theorist in the tradition of Alex Jones, on whose radio show he often appears.

Recovered from my own perfunctory Google search, here are a few of Wayne Madsen’s greatest scoops: Norwegian terrorist Anders Breivik was an Israeli agent who murdered 69 people on behalf of his handlers in Tel Aviv. The attacks of 9/11 were masterminded in Israel and Washington, D.C., as a “false flag” operation. The 2000 terrorist attack on the USS Cole was also a “false flag” operation, executed  by—you guessed it!—the Israelis.

When not mumbling about the perfidious Jews, Madsen is enlightening readers on President Obama’s gay past (he wore “clear nail polish” and was a habitué of Chicago bathhouses), speculating that a “White House S&M ring order[ed] special videos from Abu Ghraib,” and reporting that President Bush’s “feces and urine are classified top secret” and “captured” from special toilets and “flown back from Europe.” (This last story is available on the Holocaust-denial website Rense.com, incidentally.)

Overlooked by those piling on The Observer was the rather significant fact that the paper appears not to have spoken to Madsen.

But there is evidence that The Observer, in its hunger for another NSA scoop, proceeded despite knowing of Madsen’s bizarro views. In a beautifully understated sentence, Doward notes that Madsen “has been attacked for holding controversial views on espionage issues.” It’s a subtle but important verb choice: “attacked” rather than, say, “criticized” or “excoriated” for his evidence-free mutterings. Perhaps The Observer believed that, despite Madsen’s zero batting average with previous “reporting,” this particular bit of information withstood scrutiny simply because it seemed plausible.

After a flood of criticism, Observer editors purged the story from its website—just more grist for the conspiracist mill—but not before its print edition had been loaded onto trucks and delivered to newsstands across the United Kingdom, with Madsen’s photo and “scoop” gracing the front page. Those elderly Guardianistas in Norwich, not following the firestorm of criticism on Twitter, would never know the claims had been retracted.

But even ignoring Madsen’s background, Doward’s story is a marvel of awful journalism. While the Observer headline screamed that it had “revealed” a troubling partnership between the United States and Europe in data sharing, Doward offhandedly mentions that Madsen was basing his claims on “declassified documents”—which, oddly, weren’t posted with the story and are available on the NSA’s website. And overlooked by those piling on The Observer was the rather significant fact that the paper appears not to have spoken to Madsen, instead mining quotes from an interview he gave to a blog called  PrivacySurgeon.org. (Indeed, some of Doward’s language is very similar to the source material, but why kick a man when he’s down?)

Providing a patina of respectability to a disreputable source, Doward informs Observer readers that Madsen previously held “several sensitive positions within” the NSA over a 12-year period. The only supporting evidence for the claim is Madsen himself, though his claims of previous NSA employment have shifted over the years. In a 2011 Guardian article endorsing 9/11 conspiracy theories, Madsen was cited as a former “NSA operative.”

Desperate to get in on the NSA scoop game, Salon cannibalized the Madsen story, receiving a coveted Drudge Report link for its troubles. One can only assume that influenced Salon’s decision not to pull the story, instead issuing a vague “update” saying that The Observer had pulled the story “pending an investigation.” The author of Salon’s piece, Prachi Gupta, didn’t respond to an email inquiry. From there, the Madsen story spidered out to Die Welt, the Sacramento Bee, Corriere Della Sera, and countless others.

Like the unstoppable proliferation of junk science, the laundered conspiracy theory is a stubborn thing. In 2002, after Madsen had declared 9/11 an “inside job,” The Guardian cited him and his “sources” when it reported that the United States Navy assisted a short-lived coup that toppled Venezuelan autocrat Hugo Chávez. No supporting evidence exists for the claim—like the NSA story, it sounds plausible—but it has wormed its way into various academic books and is prominently cited in a Wikipedia entry detailing “covert United States foreign regime change actions.” A quote from Madsen would be quickly flagged; a report from The Guardian lies dormant.

The Internet, of course, makes it both far easier to expose frauds like Madsen and to deceive unsophisticated readers and reporters. But with very real revelations of NSA surveillance coming trickling out from The Guardian, is it too much to ask for its sister publication, in its hunger for clicks, to stop undermining its credibility by polluting the news with nonsense stories sourced to nonsense people?