On Thursday, November 8, Huffington Post political editor Thomas B. Edsall e-mailed National Review’s advertising department with a series of questions about W. Thomas Smith Jr., a contributor to NRO’s military blog, “The Tank.” Edsall wrote that he was preparing a story for the Huffington Post questioning the veracity of several posts Smith had written for “The Tank” while in Lebanon this fall. Edsall named three sources for his story: Christopher Allbritton, Mitchell Prothero, and a third, anonymous source. Edsall identified all three as reporters working in Lebanon. The e-mail was forwarded to me.
I have since learned that Allbritton sent an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org on Oct. 5 criticizing Smith’s work, but due to an oversight on our part, this e-mail account was never created and no one received the e-mail. We are taking steps to create a single e-mail address for corrections that is easily located from any part of our website, to prevent this from happening in the future.
As soon as I received Edsall’s e-mail, I contacted Smith and had him go through the details of what he wrote and who his sources were. That same day, I assigned a staff reporter to look into the posts that Edsall planned to dispute, and I myself called some experts in the region to ask them about the matter. Within a week, we concluded our investigation.
Edsall had also e-mailed Smith when he contacted our advertising department, and Smith responded to him and gave him his phone number. Smith did not hear back from Edsall until he received a further note on November 29. Because no new issues were raised in this e-mail and we were uncomfortable waiting any longer, we decided to release the results of our investigation, along with an apology, the next day.
As to the investigation: After reviewing the complaints, contacting three independent sources in Lebanon, and speaking with Smith and several of his defenders, we reached the following conclusions:
1. With regard to the post filed September 29 in which Smith claimed that 4,000-5,000 Hezbollah gunmen deployed to East Beirut in a “show of force”: It appears that Smith was either confused about what he saw or misled by his sources — probably some combination of both. Two of our independent sources agreed with Smith’s critics that the event was unlikely, and one — an editor who lives and works in Beirut — flatly stated that it didn’t happen.
Smith told us that he didn’t see weapons — only men he identified as Hezbollah standing in intersections with radios. He said his sources filled in the rest. “We were driving,” he said. “We were going down the road, and I see these guys I identify as Hezbollah at road intersections with radios, and I’m asking what’s going on. I’m told these people are Hezbollah. Later on, when I’m back at the [The International Lebanese Committee for UNSCR 1559] headquarters, I’m told that these were Hezbollah militants deploying to Christian areas of Beirut, and there were four or five thousand of them.” (The International Lebanese Committee for UNSCR 1559 is an anti-Syrian, anti-Hezbollah group.)
I don’t think that Smith fabricated or falsified his reporting. But he should have been more clear about what exactly he saw with his own eyes, and he should have attributed any other information about the event to his sources (along with caveats about their credibility, if necessary.) We’ve decided that, absent independent verification that the event happened as Smith described, we cannot stand by the story.
2. With regard to the post filed September 25 in which Smith claimed that a Hezbollah tent city near the Lebanese parliament was occupied by over 200 “heavily armed” militiamen: Smith’s description falls within the bounds of what others told us about the camp, but he should have been more specific. Smith saw a few guns and, based on that and what he heard from others, he reported that the men in the camp were “heavily armed.”
One of our independent sources told us that both Smith and his critics got it wrong: “In late September there were rarely more than a few dozen people in the tent city on any given day,” she said. “It is thus unlikely that there were 200 people there when Smith passed by, let alone 200 ‘heavily-armed militiamen.’”
But she also told us, “Mr. Smith’s characterization of the tent city as a very real security threat positioned on the doorstep of both the parliament and the Serail [the prime minister’s headquarters] is wholly legitimate. There may not be 200 people there now, but Hezbollah could mobilize a much larger number than that quite quickly, and… it is believed that there are weapons already on the premises. In light of this, I would have to say that the criticisms cited — which downplay the security threat posed by the camp — are at least as misleading as Smith’s post itself.”
Nevertheless, we think this is another instance where Smith should have been clearer about what he saw as opposed to what he was told. Having reviewed his work, we cannot vouch for the accuracy of his reporting. In general, too much of Smith’s information came from sources who had an incentive to exaggerate the threat Hezbollah poses to Lebanon — and these sources influenced his reporting for the whole of his trip. While we agree that that threat is very real, our readers should have had more information about Smith’s sources so that they could have better evaluated the credibility of the information he was providing.
I apologize to all of our readers. We should have required Smith to clearly source all of his original reporting from Lebanon. Smith let himself become susceptible to spin by those taking him around Lebanon, so his reporting from there should be read with that knowledge. (We are attaching this note to all his Lebanon reporting.) This was an editing failure as much as it was a reporting failure. We let him down, and we let you down, and we’re taking steps to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
Smith has, on his own, decided that he will no longer write for NRO. We respect his decision.
– Kathryn Jean Lopez, Editor, National Review Online