Politics & Policy

Shattered Diarist

Ask Peter Arnett for advice next time.

It was nice to see the Scott Thomas Beauchamp/New Republic scandal back up on the radar screen yesterday. There was never a satisfactory conclusion to the story; it just faded out over the summer. Now it is back in a big way, with the Drudge Report releasing internal Army documents related to the case, and a very revealing transcript of a conversation between Beauchamp, various luminaries from The New Republic, and Beauchamp’s TNR-supplied lawyer.

TNR’s first response to the release was typical of the tone-deafness with which they have approached the entire affair — denouncing the selective leak of official documents. It is always suspect when journalists take a principled stand against leaks. It might be more convincing if TNR pledged never to use leaked information in its reporting ever again, maybe then they’d have some credibility. As it happened, the Army report recommended releasing the findings to the media, while TNR was frantically trying to get Beauchamp to cancel all his press interviews. TNR Editor Franklin Foer said that Scott owed it to the magazine to talk only to them to let them “control the way the story proceeds.” I suppose because they were doing such a great job of controlling it thus far.

The Beauchamp affair should be taught in journalism schools as a case study of how not to conduct damage control. When it quickly became obvious that there were serious problems both with Beauchamp’s “diaries” and with the author himself, TNR should have cut bait. The magazine could quite reasonably have made a statement that they were taken advantage of by someone they trusted, who was married to someone on their staff who presumably vouched for him, and retracted the stories. It would have been embarrassing, but the matter would have concluded. Instead TNR stood by Beauchamp, tying the magazine’s credibility to his, and suffering accordingly. Rather than admitting error and moving on, they invested time, money, and apparently a degree of political capital in fighting a clearly losing cause with no discernable upside even if they had prevailed. It is mystifying — like Dan Rather defending those bogus National Guard documents, or Peter Arnett sticking to the story of the U.S. conducting Sarin gas attacks against captured American troops in Vietnam. How can people who are so successful make such astonishing errors in professional judgment?

Maybe TNR didn’t think there was much there. Unlike the above-mentioned stories the “atrocities” Beauchamp claimed to have documented were unremarkable. Killing dogs? There are justifiable reasons for doing so in combat conditions — if a dog with a backpack is approaching your AFV you had better take it out quickly. As well, packs of vicious or rabid dogs roaming civilian areas need to be controlled. Playing around with a skull from a mass grave? I can see bored privates doing that briefly until their platoon sergeant barked at them to knock it off and keep digging. But the thing that should have given the TNR editors pause if they had any understanding at all of military culture was the tale of mocking a disfigured woman in a mess hall in Iraq (later changed to Kuwait, but whatever, just details, right?) No solider would publicly mock a woman wounded in an attack unless he was looking for a serious ass kicking. This is not how our troops behave. The fact that this alleged incident did not raise a red flag to the TNR editors demonstrated how out of touch they are with the military — or how willing they were to believe the worst about our fighting forces.

The Army’s report on the Beauchamp incident is good reading and confirms what was widely believed, namely that Scott either made up or wildly exaggerated the events he described. It is a shame that all we got to see was the report itself and not the supporting documentation, especially the statements of other soldiers in Beauchamp’s unit. Maybe the next leak won’t be as selective. But the real gold is the transcript of the telephone call, which reveals TNR was in much closer contact with Beauchamp throughout the controversy than they were willing to admit.

Poor Scott comes across as pitiable. He found out that there is a major difference between publishing sophomoric anti-military musings on his sparsely viewed blog and impugning the American Solider in a national opinion journal. “[T]his whole thing it’s…it’s…spun out of control and mutated into something that’s it’s just like…it’s not something that…it’s just insane,” he said. “I’m basically saying, like, I basically want it to end.”

Beauchamp could certainly have ended it by just admitting that his stories were fake. TNR executive editor Peter Scoblic — who went out of his way to mention that he was “not around the office” when the stories were edited and published (did he know this was being taped?) — gave Scott ample opportunity. He pointed out that the magazine stood up for Scott while they have been dragged through the mud, and nevertheless if “certain parts of the story are bullshit, then we’ll end it that way.” He just asked Beauchamp to summon up some personal responsibility and be straight with them.

But why start being responsible now? Beauchamp masterfully avoids giving direct answers. He isn’t talking to anyone about the articles any more. He wants to concentrate on being a Soldier. He won’t talk to the media — TNR included. He has an excuse for everything. He can’t get the copies of the investigative documents TNR wants because he’s busy. “Time is different from time where you are,” he states. If people think his stories aren’t true, well, people will view what he wrote in a lot of ways, that can’t be helped. But are they true or not? “I’m not commenting on the stories,” Beauchamp said. “That’s what I’m saying…I’m not discussing them at all. Um, which is not an admission of anything.” Um, right.

It is amusing to see TNR on the receiving end of Beauchamp’s dissembling. Did they expect gratitude? Forget it. Scoblic’s frustration is evident — he points out that TNR really went to the mat to defend Beauchamp and now he was lumping them in with the rest of the media. TNR did a variety of things for Beauchamp, including “making sure you were okay via a number of pretty high level channels.” (How high? Through whom? Interesting story there I’ll bet.)  When Beauchamp sloughs it all off by saying he is a Soldier and not a writer, he’s going to focus on his duty to his comrades in arms, the next line from Scoblic is “(Unintelligible.)”  Fill in the blank yourself.

It is hard to see how TNR can continue to stand by Beauchamp, or why they should. He certainly cares little about them, and the findings of the official report, leaked or not, give the magazine an opportunity to publicly recant. That is, if they can stomach agreeing with the Army. Or they could stick with the type of tactics that have brought them to their current state of disrepute; denounce the report, say the testimony was coerced, that the Soldiers involved were threatened with reprisal, that Beauchamp is too intimidated to speak, and so forth, which might find an audience with the hard-core conspiracy minded, but will only serve to keep the issue festering until the next revelation.

The bright side of the case study is in illustrating the power of the web to police reporting — to act as a watchdog over the watchdogs. In particular it reconfirms the critical role of the milbloggers. A prescient, award-winning essay by Army Major Elizabeth Robbins (relation by marriage) pointed out that if members of the military were prevented from blogging, this corner of the information domain would be left to the Beauchamps of the world, where they could indulge their biases unchecked. “To silence the most credible voices — those at the spear’s edge — and to deny them this function is to handicap the Army on a vital, very real battlefield,” Robbins writes. “The Army’s reputation is maintained on many fronts, and no one fights harder on its behalf than our young Soldiers. We must allow them access to this fight.” Had milbloggers not intervened, who knows what absurd, fantastic, vicious and wholly contrived events Beauchamp’s fourth and fifth “diary” entries would have contained? And how many people would have believed them?

  James S. Robbins is the director of the Intelligence Center at Trinity Washington University , senior fellow for national-security affairs at the American Foreign Policy Council, and author of Last in Their Class: Custer, Picket and the Goats of West Point. Robbins is also an NRO contributor.

 

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