The staff of the Wall Street Journal’s Washington bureau was reeling Wednesday from the disclosure that the paper’s widely respected chief foreign affairs correspondent, Jay Solomon, was abruptly fired earlier in the day after the Associated Press reported that he had committed an incomprehensible breach of journalistic ethics—getting entangled in a secret business arrangement with a shadowy Iranian-born arms dealer who the AP described as “one of [Solomon’s] key sources.”
“People here are just stunned. It’s just so bizarre,” said one of Solomon’s Wall Street Journal colleagues, who spoke to The Daily Beast on condition of not being further identified. “I don’t understand how he didn’t realize he was crossing such an obvious line…I really have no explanation for it.”
A second person, a member of Washington’s foreign policy community who considers Solomon “a good friend,” was equally shaken by the AP’s revelation.
“Wow,” said Solomon’s friend, who also asked for anonymity. “Jay always has had these murky relationships in the Middle East and in Asia around North Korea and around Syria, and around issues in and out of Israel and Iran. It was one of the things that made his reporting very, very rich. But I would never ever have thought that he would have done something like this. And I’ve known Jay since he was a kid.”
The Wall Street Journal said it is conducting its own investigation into Solomon’s alleged misconduct, which may or may not be limited to the revelations in Wednesday’s investigative report.
The AP’s story—by Jeff Horwitz, Jon Gambrell and Jack Gillum—reported on a cache of emails, text messages and other evidence spanning an 18-month period in 2014 and 2015 suggesting that Solomon could have benefited financially from various commercial deals with Iranian-born aviation magnate Farhad Azima, a source he had been cultivating and had used for his reporting.
The AP had obtained the record of communications involving Solomon as part of a lengthy investigation of Azima, which was published on Tuesday.
The arms dealer offered the journalist a 10 percent stake in a Denx LLC, a Florida-registered startup that proposed to provide aviation surveillance services to foreign governments, the AP reported, but it “was not clear whether Solomon ever received money or formally accepted a stake in the company.”
The company was shut down last year after two of its principal partners, ex-CIA employees Gary Bernsten and Scott Modell, withdrew from the failing venture, the AP reported.
Bernsten and Modell told the wire service that Solomon had participated with Azima in discussions about potential business opportunities but ultimately withdrew from the enterprise, although the two ex-CIA employees provided no documentary proof of Solomon’s withdrawal.
The AP reported on an April 2015 email in which Azima sought Solomon’s help in obtaining a $725 million air-operations, surveillance and reconnaissance support contract with the United Arab Emirates that would have featured spy-plane flights over Iran, Syria, Iraq and Yemen.
According to Azima’s email, Solomon was supposed to present the Denx LLC proposal to UAE government officials at a lunch the next day.
“We all wish the best of luck to Jay on his first defense sale,” Azima wrote to Solomon, Bernsten and Modell.
In October 2014, the AP reported, Solomon wrote to Azima in a text message: “Our business opportunities are so promising.”
Azima’s attorney told the wire service that the emails, texts and other internal documents that the AP used for its reporting had been stolen by hackers.
Wall Street Journal spokesman Steve Severinghaus, who didn’t respond to a voicemail message from The Daily Beast, told the AP in a statement: “We are dismayed by the actions and poor judgment of Jay Solomon. While our own investigation continues, we have concluded that Mr. Solomon violated his ethical obligations as a reporter, as well as our standards.”
In his own statement to the AP, Solomon admitted to unspecified “mistakes” but denied that he had gone into business with Azima, who in the past has transported weapons for the CIA: “I clearly made mistakes in my reporting and entered into a world I didn’t understand,” Solomon said. “I never entered into any business with Farhad Azima, nor did I ever intend to. But I understand why the emails and the conversations I had with Mr. Azima may look like I was involved in some seriously troubling activities. I apologize to my bosses and colleagues at the Journal, who were nothing but great to me.”
People familiar with Solomon and his journalism—which has been among the most distinguished and groundbreaking in the foreign policy and diplomatic fields—expressed surprise and puzzlement that such a savvy Washington player could have been so naïve concerning the destructive implications of his conduct.
Solomon frequently appeared on television as an expert to discuss foreign affairs—most recently on this past Saturday’s edition of the PBS Newshour to talk about U.S. arms sales to Qatar.
Solomon also appeared last August on NBC News chief foreign affairs correspondent Andrea Mitchell’s program to promote The Iran Wars, his well-regarded book on that country’s development of nuclear weapons technology.
The befuddlement of his colleagues and friends was compounded by the fact that Solomon’s late father, Richard H. Solomon, was a former Henry Kissinger aide who took part in President Nixon’s diplomatic opening to China, as well as a top state department official in the George H.W. Bush administration and a renowned China scholar.
Jay Solomon, who’s in his late 40s, was said to be devastated by his father’s death this past March at age 79.
“He’s a really good reporter who had a profound Asia background and as well as in the Middle East,” said Solomon’s friend. “He’s fun, he’s thoughtful, he’s connected, he’s out there. I never noticed anything kind of disheveled whatever about him. He’s definitely ideological. He tends to be more tilting toward the neoconservative view of the world, and he was highly doubtful of things like the Iran [nuclear arms] deal. He thought Obama was super-naïve. But Jay is a regular, decent guy.”
Solomon’s firing represents the latest—and certainly most embarrassing and damaging—blow to a newspaper that has lost several prominent members of its Washington bureau to other outlets, notably national security reporter Adam Entous and Justice Department reporter Devlin Barrett to the Washington Post, and, just this week, White House correspondent Carol Lee to NBC News.