In The Tank: Did National Review Reporter Make His Stories Up?

In The Tank: Did National Review Reporter Make His Stories Up?

There is a growing dispute over the veracity of reporting from Lebanon by former Marine W. Thomas Smith, Jr. who is posting reports on his blog, The Tank, published by the conservative website, National Review Online (NRO). Smith is a supporter of the war in Iraq, and is affiliated with two politically conservative organizations, the Counterterrorism Research Center and the Family Security Foundation. He is the executive editor of World Defense Review, and the co-author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Understanding Intelligent Design.

At question are two reports filed by Smith on The Tank -- reports which appear to be designed to bolster support for the ongoing presence of U.S troops in the Mideast.

Smith's reporting has given rise to the following points of contention:

-- First: Smith's September 29 report that between 4,000-5,000 Hezbollah gunmen had "deployed to the Christian areas of Beirut in an unsettling 'show of force.'"

-- Second: his September 25 report that "some 200-plus heavily armed Hezbollah militiamen" occupied a "sprawling Hezbollah tent city" near the Lebanese parliament.

In addition, Smith's critics contend that Smith's self-reported exploits - if true -- endanger the press corps in the troubled region.

The Huffington Post contacted four well-regarded Middle East reporters, who have characterized Smith's journalism as follows:

Michael Prothero, who has reported for Fortune, the Washington Times, and Slate, wrote in an email:

"In his [Smith's] wildly entertaining postings, he describes kidnap attempts, an armed incursion into Christian East Beirut by 5,000 armed Hezbollah fighters that was missed by every journalist in town, he also notes the presence of 200 armed Hezbollah fighters in downtown Beirut 'laying siege' to the prime ministers office, recounts high-speed car chases and 'armed recon operations' where he drives around south Beirut taking pictures of Hezbollah installations, while carrying weapons. In a word, this is all insane."

"He's a fabulist," wrote Chris Allbritton, who has reported from the Middle East since 2002 for Time, Boston Globe, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Washington Times, and the Newark Star-Ledger. According to Allbritton, in an email to the Huffington Post, "[Smith's] claim that 4,000 Hezbollah gunmen took over East Beirut at the end of September simply never happened. Every journalist in town would have pounced on that story, and he's the only one who noticed?"

A third reporter for a major U.S. magazine, who did not want his name used because he did not want to become involved in a journalistic controversy, wrote in an email to the Huffington Post:

"Mr. Smith also says that 4,000 armed Hezbollah fighters took up positions in East Beirut one day this fall in a 'show of force'. This would have been a major international news event and possibly the start of the next Lebanese civil war. In January, unarmed opposition supporters led by Hezbollah shut down roads in Beirut, and the event sparked riots and led the news all over the world. And yet, Mr. Smith is the only journalist in Lebanon to have found this story, as far as I know. So why, with such a major scoop in his hands, does Smith devote just a few lines in a blog post to it? Because it never happened."

A fourth reporter, who works for a major media outlet and has extensive experience reporting in the area, also asked to remain anonymous, but emailed the Huffington Post:

"This guy is hilarious. Armed Hezbollah at the Serail? He must be mistaking the Lebanese army at the gates - those 200 in the tents are some middle class Hezbollees - who now come once a week to have a smoke with their friends and get away from their wives."

Three of these four journalists also pointed to Smith's unprofessional behavior, as he has described it on The Tank. These stories include a October 20 report titled "CAPTURE THE FLAG!" in which Smith boasts: "I snatched a Hezbollah flag -- the yellow banner with the green fist and rifle -- from one of the enemy's strongholds in Lebanon recently. And when I say stronghold, I literally mean a strong, heavily defended battle position where the Lebanese Army and police dare not enter, and I had to enter covertly....I hate those guys. Hezbollah, you'll remember, murdered 241 of my brothers when they blew up the Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983 when I was just a wee-rifleman in the Corps."

Allbritton pointed out that. "By openly bragging about how he conducts 'reconnaissance' on Hezbollah 'strongholds' and describing what weapons he's carrying, he's making it difficult for every journalist here to do his or her job. We're all under suspicion anyway, and his public cowboying doesn't help at all."

Prothero characterized Smith's journalism as "grossly irresponsible."

The third journalist wrote: "Mr. Smith's reporting contain[s] pure fabrications."

NRO editor Kathryn Jean Lopez acknowledged that some of Smith's work is "misleading." In an email to the Huffington Post, Lopez said:

"Having done an internal review of his posts prompted by your queries (contacting experts here and on the ground, both his sources and independents), my sense is we should have provided readers more context in some of his Lebanon posts. Without malice - wanting to give a sense of the scene - the author gave an incomplete and therefore misleading picture in at least one post."

Smith, in turn, has filed an article seeking to explain his work on NRO. Smith wrote:

Now, should I have been more specific in my writing in terms of what I physically witnessed as opposed to what I learned from sources regarding the tent city? I wish I had, but it was a blog, which tends to be less formal. However, when blogs contain original reporting, that reporting needs to be sourced. In the future, I'll provide more context.

NRO has been a frequent critic of The New Republic and its publication of a controversial and disputed "diary" by Iraq soldier Scott Thomas Beauchamp. Beauchamp, using the nom de plume Scott Thomas wrote on July 13 about troops digging up "children's bones: tiny cracked tibias and shoulder blades," about one private who wore a child's skull "on his head like a crown," and about another soldier who purposefully ran over dogs while driving a Bradley Fighting Vehicle.

Smith wrote at least five posts in September and October on The Tank attacking the Beauchamp stories, including the following comments: "It would have been virtually impossible for the things Beauchamp said happened to have played out the way he says they did" on September 10; and "Scott Thomas Beauchamp was either a fictitious character or a liar" on October 27.

In a post on The Tank, Smith sought to address some of the controversial issues: specifically that 4-5000 armed Hezbollah troops entered Christian neighborhoods; that 200 or more heavily armed Hezbollah militiamen occupied a tent city near the parliament; and that Smith's boasts of armed incursions into Hezbollah territory endangered his colleagues.

In the case of the 4000-5000 Hezbollah troops, Smith wrote:

I have not been able to independently verify that 'thousands' of armed Hezbollah fighters deployed to the Christian areas of Beirut in late September, but my sources continue to insist that it happened....

In retrospect, however, this is a case where I should have caveated the reporting by saying that I only witnessed a fraction of what happened (from a moving car), with broader details of what I saw ultimately told to me by what I considered then -- and still consider to be -- reliable sources within the Cedar Revolution movement, as well as insiders within the Lebanese national security apparatus. As we were driving through that part of town, I saw men I identified as Hezbollah deployed at road intersections with radios. I was later told that these were Hezbollah militants deploying to Christian areas of Beirut, and there were four or five thousand of them.

In the case of the 200 armed Hezbollah militia, Smith wrote:

The Hezbollah camp in late September -- and up until the time I left in mid-October -- was huge ('sprawling'). And though the tents were very large and many of them closed, I saw at least two AK-47s there with my own eyes. And this from a moving vehicle on the highway above the camp. And in my way of thinking, if a guy's got an AK-47, he's 'heavily armed.'

Did I physically see and count 200 men carrying weapons? No. If I mistakenly conveyed that impression to my readers, I apologize. I saw lots of men, lots of them carrying walkie-talkie radios, and a tent city that could have easily housed many more bthan 200. I also saw weapons, as did others in the vehicle with me. And I was informed by very reliable sources that Hezbollah does indeed store arms inside the tents. And they've certainly got the parliamentarians and other government officials spooked and surrounded by layers of security.

Finally, Smith defended his personal exploits:

My detractors have claimed that my 'public cowboying' -- writing openly about carrying weapons, photographing Hezbollah facilities and stealing flags from Hezbollah strongholds -- has endangered all reporters in Lebanon. They argue that Hezbollah fighters might assume, based on my reports, that any Western reporter could be armed and hostile to their interests.

Frankly, I'm not concerned with what Hezbollah assumes. Hezbollah is a terrorist organization, funded, trained, and equipped by the Islamic (Iranian) Revolutionary Guard Corps. My responsibility is not to concern myself with how Hezbollah perceives me, nor do I feel any compulsion to court them. They are the enemy as far as I'm concerned. My responsibility is to deliver the facts to my readers, which I have always done and will always do.

Now, am I a 'cowboy?' Perhaps I am bit of a cowboy. I did, after all, snag a Hezbollah flag while I was there. Was that Thomas [Smith] the journalist snagging the flag? Hardly. That was Thomas the Marine. And that's part of who I am, which I suppose makes me part cowboy. But that's something my detractors will just to have to live with, because that's not going to change.

I am opinionated: Probably more so these days than ever. But would I ever suggest that my opinion is fact? Hardly. That's the part of me that is a journalist -- the part that compels me to back up facts with sources in columns or articles. Though I haven't always listed sources when blogging about what I'm seeing, hearing or experiencing at the moment, I'll try to be more careful to do that in the future, to make available facts and impressions as crystal clear and as in context as they can be.

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