NEW YORK -- Daily Caller editor-in-chief Tucker Carlson pushed back Tuesday following Sen. Robert Menendez's allegations that yet-unproven prostitution claims, published by the conservative news site days before the 2012 election, were part of a Cuban government scheme to smear him.
"A secret plot by Cuban intelligence? Pretty convenient," Carlson said in an email to The Huffington Post. "But is there any evidence at all to suggest that's actually true? We've got a reporter on it right now, but so far I haven't seen any."
The Washington Post reported Monday night that Menendez (D-N.J.) has asked the Justice Department to look into "evidence obtained by U.S. investigators that the Cuban government concocted an elaborate plot to smear him with allegations that he cavorted with underage prostitutes." Menendez is a tough critic of the Castro regime, and his attorney claimed in the letter that the Cuban government sought to damage the senator's political standing.
A former U.S. official told the Post that the CIA "obtained credible evidence" linking Cuban operatives to attempts to plant the prostitution claims in U.S. and Latin American media.
"The Washington Post's report that the CIA has concluded a foreign intelligence service sought to manipulate U.S. policy by spreading false rumors to the FBI and to media outlets is extremely disturbing," Menendez communications director Tricia Enright said in a statement to The Huffington Post. "We hope the Department of Justice and other appropriate federal agencies will investigate this matter aggressively and hold anyone involved fully accountable."
The Daily Caller’s Nov. 1, 2012 report, based on the accounts of two unnamed women who claimed that Menendez paid them for sex in the Dominican Republic, was hyped aggressively by The Drudge Report but largely ignored by media outlets that couldn't substantiate the allegations. The salacious story further unraveled in March 2013 after three women said they were paid to lie about Menendez, and it was revealed that four news outlets had investigated the allegations before the Daily Caller ran the story, but found no credible evidence to merit publication.
ABC News revealed on March 5 how Republican operatives arranged video interviews with the women believed to be those who spoke to the Daily Caller. The network didn't run a story because of "doubts about the women's veracity and identity." Days later, The Huffington Post reported that political operatives approached veteran reporters at the New York Post and Star-Ledger in the summer of 2012 with claims against Menendez. Reporters from both outlets, who are known for dogged coverage of corruption in New Jersey, investigated the claims but couldn't substantiate them. A top Politico reporter also investigated the claims and passed on the story.
While other news outlets balked at the unproven allegations, Daily Caller writers continued to push the Menendez story in subsequent anonymously sourced reports and in media appearances, as Slate's Dave Weigel detailed Tuesday.
The three Daily Caller reporters and editors most closely tied to the Menendez story -- Matt Boyle, Charles C. Johnson and David Martosko -- have all since left the news outlet. Boyle and Martosko are now with Breitbart News and the Daily Mail, respectively. Johnson meanwhile started his own site, and has recently found himself at the center of a controversy over coverage of the Mississippi Republican primary.
The Daily Caller continued to stand by its reporting on March 18, 2013, after Dominican police announced that they had found three women who claimed to have been paid to provide false claims about Menendez. At the time, Daily Caller executive editor Vince Coglianese wrote that the site would investigate further.
Carlson told HuffPost that "after more than a year of looking, neither we nor any other news organization has been able to identify or locate" the women who told Dominican police they were paid to lie about Menendez. Carlson added that his site hasn't confirmed whether "they're the same women we interviewed for our initial story."
Carlson said that the Daily Caller has gone back to the women interviewed for the original story, but he said that they won't speak because they feel "threatened by Dominican authorities."
Apart from the media outlets, the FBI also spent months investigating the prostitution allegations and couldn't corroborate them.
The circumstances that led up to the publication of the Menendez claims have long been murky. But the Post's report Monday shed some light on who might have created the anonymous tipster account at the center of the allegations.
The New York Times previously reported that someone identifying himself as "Pete Williams" contacted Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington in April 2012 with claims that Menendez had procured underage prostitutes while vacationing in the Dominican Republic with friend and wealthy donor Salomon Melgen. CREW began looking into the matter and brought in ABC News' investigative unit a month later.
CREW executive director Melanie Sloan told HuffPost in March 2013 that ABC News "diligently tried to pursue the story and when they couldn't verify the allegations, they didn't report it."
So who is "Pete Williams?" According to the Post, the CIA's new intelligence indicates that operatives within Cuba's Directorate of Intelligence helped create the fake tipster.