If you’ve been following the story of the terror attacks in Benghazi and their scandalous fallout here at home, there’s a good chance you’ve been reading Eli Lake’s coverage at The Daily Beast. Lake, the Beast’s 40-year-old senior national-security correspondent, has been the indispensable reporter on the case.
Lake was the first to report on the unraveling of the administration’s narrative, which centered on a “spontaneous” eruption of violence elicited by a YouTube video, when intelligence sources suggested extremists had monitored the compound before the attack. He was also the first to tell us that, within 24 hours, American officials knew the attack was carried out by al-Qaeda affiliates, and the first to trace the origins of Susan Rice’s claim about a protest “undertaken in response to a very offensive video” to a series of flawed talking points generated by the CIA. Then came his report that a former regional security officer in Libya, Eric Nordstrom, was preparing to tell Congress that the State Department reduced security in Libya despite his objections. Nordstrom delivered his astonishing testimony to the House Oversight Committee on October 10, the day after Lake’s story appeared.
To those who know him, Lake’s dominance on the Benghazi beat comes as no surprise. Lake, a former colleague of mine at the New York Sun, earned a reputation early on for his ability to get the scoop. “We sensed that Lake could be a scoop-getter, which turned out to be an understatement,” says Seth Lipsky, who hired Lake at The Forward in 1999 and again at the Sun in 2004. Lake’s 2007 Sun exclusive highlighting the consensus judgment in the latest National Intelligence Estimate that an al-Qaeda leadership council met regularly in eastern Iran so rattled Bush-administration officials that the Sun published an editorial on “The Lake Effect.” Thanks to Lake, the Sun was also a leading source of news on the Iranian dissident Akbar Ganji and on Ahmed Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress. “He’s just a serious, widely sourced newspaperman,” Lipsky says.
Lipsky — who began his journalistic career with Stars and Stripes in Vietnam, and then went on to be a foreign editor of the Wall Street Journal before founding The Forward and the New York Sun — also left his stamp on Lake. Lipsky, says Lake, showed him that “my job is not to sum up the day’s events; it’s to tell people something they don’t know, and to drive a story and follow a story — as I’m doing with Benghazi, finding the latest developments.” And for Lake, there’s nothing personal in journalism. “The best advice Seth ever gave me,” he says, “is that after you write a hard story on somebody, call them up the next day and invite them out for lunch to send the message that there’s nothing personal. You have no stake in the outcome; you have a stake in breaking the news.”
Lake is a shoe-leather reporter. “He’s old school, he’s objective, and he’s serious,” says James Kirchick, a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a friend of Lake’s, “but at the same time he does have values and a point of view, and I think that makes him more honest than most other journalists and reporters. I think that compels him to root out the truth.”
It was perhaps those qualities that led Lake to Egypt in 2005. “I went there with my ex–future wife, the woman I thought I was going to marry,” he says, with characteristic self-deprecation. “It didn’t work out, and I lived there on my own.”
Lake spent a year in Cairo, which served him well journalistically and shaped his view both of America and of the region. “I made contacts with the Muslim Brotherhood that serve me to this day,” Lake says, “and I met the people who would become the Egyptian revolutionaries.” Being on the ground in Cairo “gave me a real insight into how the survival of the dictatorship was essential to American interests even though it was contrary to American values.” The Egyptian Street, he points out, was widely opposed to peace with Israel and to a partnership with the United States, policies implemented and maintained by the Sadat and Mubarak regimes. Lake’s time in Cairo coincided with the outbreak of the Israel-Lebanon War in 2006. “There was palpable rage and anger about what Israel had done,” Lake says, referring to the air strikes that targeted Hezbollah positions in Lebanon, and he recalls that his “personal relationships and friendships were strained because there was so much anger towards Israel during the war.”
Raised in the Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia, Lake describes his parents as “progressive, leftist.” “They sent me to Jewish Day School, but they also sent me to the secular humanist ‘Jewish Children’s Folk Shul.’” It was “God-optional,” he says. Rather than reading from the Torah, an integral part of the traditional Bar Mitzvah, the Folk Shul instead required the presentation of a research project. “I did a presentation on the Jewish perspective on nuclear war,” Lake says. “I urged, because I was raised by leftists, unconditional nuclear talks between Reagan and Gorbachev.”
Lake wears his knowledge and his success lightly. Look him up on Wikipedia, and you’ll find: “In addition to his journalistic endeavors, Lake is an accomplished amateur rapper.” It’s true. But Lake doesn’t rap just any rap. His forte is the improvisational jam, covering the news of the day. “It’s incredible,” says Kirchick. “He’ll start a rap about Ahmed Chalabi, and it’ll wind its way to neocons in Washington and to John Edwards’s baby daddy.”
Professionally, Lake has found his groove at the Beast, although his path there was circuitous. After graduating from Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., in 1994, he worked at five publications before Tina Brown snagged him for Newsweek. “This is a guy who should have been writing for a mainstream outlet a lot earlier than he was,” says Kirchick. “It’s a testament to the screwed-up values of journalism.” And, though Lake is leading the pack in his reporting on Benghazi, he is the first to praise the work of others: ABC’s Jake Tapper, CNN’s Erin Burnett and Anderson Cooper, CBS’s Sharyl Attkisson, Reuters’s Mark Hosenball, Foreign Policy’s Josh Rogin, and the Wall Street Journal’s national-security team. “It was nice when I had it to myself,” Lake says. Now, “there’s plenty of competition for the story.” That’s undoubtedly true, but it hasn’t stopped Lake from getting many of the scoops.
— Eliana Johnson is media editor of National Review.