NYT's Risen Hits Back At Critics On Afghan Minerals Story, Raises More Questions

Over the weekend, the New York Times's James Risen had an attention-grabbing story that touted the discovery of "nearly $1 trillion in untapped mineral deposits in Afghanistan" said to be "far beyond any previously known reserves and enough to fundamentally alter the Afghan economy and perhaps the Afghan war itself."

The story was met with substantial criticism since the news of the mineral riches was not exactly new, which led many to question the convenient timing of the piece. The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder, for example, said it "suggest[ed] a broad and deliberate information operation designed to influence public opinion on the course of the war."

In an interview with John Cook over at Yahoo's Newsroom blog, Risen strikes back at these critics, saying, "Bloggers should do their own reporting instead of sitting around in their pajamas." In a slightly more exclusive tweet from Cook, we learn that Risen actually said that the aforementioned bloggers were "jerking off in their pajamas." Leaving aside the hacky tropes from the late 1990s still being deployed by embattled journalists, Risen continued, thusly:

"The thing that amazes me is that the blogosphere thinks they can deconstruct other people's stories," Risen told Yahoo! News during an increasingly hostile interview, which he called back to apologize for almost immediately after it ended. "Do you even know anything about me? Maybe you were still in school when I broke the NSA story, I don't know. It was back when you were in kindergarten, I think." (Risen and fellow Times reporter Eric Lichtblau shared a 2006 Pulitzer Prize for their reporting on the Bush administration's secret wiretapping program; this reporter was 33 years old at the time.)

Risen defended the article against claims that Afghanistan's mineral wealth was largely a matter of public knowledge prior to his story. "If it wasn't news, then why didn't anybody write about it?" he asked.

As Cook points out, the story had been previously reported by McClatchy Newspapers and Agence France Presse and the central claim -- that Afghanistan had a vast vein of valuable mineral deposits -- was discussed publicly by Hamid Karzai just a month ago. Risen's response to that was to insist that "no one picked up on it."

Beyond the currency of the story, there's also another matter that concerns Ambinder and others: the curious timing of this news, coming alongside setbacks in our relationship with Hamid Karzai, waning public support for the war and the forthcoming appearance by CENTCOM commander General David Petraeus before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Was Risen's piece part of a "broad and deliberate information operation?" Well, it should be noted that Risen's story doesn't exactly present Afghanistan's mineral riches as something that's going to make everything perfect from now on.

So the Obama administration is hungry for some positive news to come out of Afghanistan. Yet the American officials also recognize that the mineral discoveries will almost certainly have a double-edged impact.

Instead of bringing peace, the newfound mineral wealth could lead the Taliban to battle even more fiercely to regain control of the country.

The corruption that is already rampant in the Karzai government could also be amplified by the new wealth, particularly if a handful of well-connected oligarchs, some with personal ties to the president, gain control of the resources. Just last year, Afghanistan's minister of mines was accused by American officials of accepting a $30 million bribe to award China the rights to develop its copper mine. The minister has since been replaced.

Endless fights could erupt between the central government in Kabul and provincial and tribal leaders in mineral-rich districts. Afghanistan has a national mining law, written with the help of advisers from the World Bank, but it has never faced a serious challenge.

So Risen provides the reader with plenty of reasons to be cynical about the discovery. And maybe it's just me, but it seems like the cynical take on this story has achieved as much traction as the upside.

Still, there's one aspect of Risen's defense that raises questions:

So was the story a Pentagon plant, designed to show the American public a shiny metallic light at the end of the long tunnel that is the Afghan war, as skeptics allege? Risen said he heard about the Pentagon's efforts from Milt Bearden, a retired CIA officer who was active in Afghanistan in the 1980s. The men co-authored a book, "The Main Enemy," in 2003, and Bearden is now a consultant working with [deputy undersecretary of defense Paul] Brinkley's survey team.

"Several months ago, Milt started telling me about what they were finding," Risen said. "At the beginning of the year, I said I wanted to do a story on it." At first both Bearden and Brinkley resisted, Risen said, but he eventually wore them down. "Milt convinced Brinkley to talk to me," he said, "and Brinkley convinced other Pentagon officials to go on the record. I think Milt realized that things were going so badly in Afghanistan that people would be willing to talk about this." In other words, according to Risen, he wasn't handed the story in a calculated leak.

Or was he? The mention of Milt Bearden's name set off alarms with Steve Hynd, who went reaching for a bit of his own reporting, from October 2009. In that report, entitled "The Defense Minister's Son, The CIA Guy, And Their U.S. Lobby Group", Hynd discusses a "pressure group" known as the Campaign for a U.S.-Afghanistan Partnership (CUSAP), that had been "active in D.C., employing lobbyists Patton Boggs LLP to make its case that "Afghanistan, through a long-term partnership with the United States, can become a strong, prospering nation." CUSAP employed the services of "well-connected DC insider" Nicholas Allard, and had connections to Hamid Wardak, son of Afghan Defense Minister Rahim Wardak.

And who else had their fingerprints all over the operation? Milt Bearden, that's who! Per Hynd:

Wardak and Bearden knew each other already, though. Hamid Wardak is also CEO and President of a company called NCL Holdings. On the company website, NHL Holdings describe their business:

"NCL has been tasked to provide all resources including logistics support and management necessary to provide transportation support for the secure long haul distribution of reconstruction, security, and life support assets from Forward Operating Bases (FOB) and distribution sites located throughout the Afghanistan Theater of Operations."

Bearden is listed as being on the advisory board of NCL Holdings. As is Elliot F Gearsen, Finance Director for the Joe Lieberman for President Campaign 2004. Those are the only two advisers.

The business connection between the Afghan defense minister's son and an ex-CIA man who armed the mujahadeen is interesting, given the NYT's report about Karzai's brother, especially since a scholarly report seems to have identified Hamid Wardak as allegedly one of the warlords running unregistered security forces that are challenging the U.S. mission. But it might be purely coincidental, signifying nothing untoward.

However, that the defense minister's son and the ex-CIA guy are involved in a business that makes lots of money from the U.S. military's continued presence in Afghanistan while simultaneously running a campaign to boost a continued U.S. military presence in Afghanistan -- and spending pots of money on lobbyists under that campaign's banner -- might well be construed as a major conflict of interest.

Hynd asks the pertinent question: "So the question now is, did Risen get played by Bearden for Bearden's own purposes, or was the ex-CIA man simply a conduit for parties within the Pentagon and administration who wanted this story hyped at this particular time?"

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