NEW YORK -– The Washington Post is facing additional questions about the sourcing behind its groundbreaking series of stories that has rattled the Secret Service.
The latest incident came on Saturday, when the Post's Carol Leonnig was forced to update an earlier story concerning an armed security guard riding along with the president in an elevator at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Leonnig, relying on three anonymous sources, reported Sept. 30 that the guard was a convicted felon, which she now acknowledges was not the case. The guard, Kenneth Tate, provided an account Sunday to The New York Times that conflicted greatly with what unnamed sources had previously told the Post.
News outlets are often forced to update stories with additional details that emerge after publication. But for the Post, whose reporting led to the resignation of Secret Service Director Julia Pierson, the correction could prove costly. Its coverage of the embattled agency was widely praised in media circles and had been expected to rack up journalism prizes, but now, three separate stories have come under scrutiny.
Last week, the Times reported that a former Department of Homeland Security investigator who played a key role in the Post's reporting on the 2012 Secret Service prostitution scandal had resigned in August following allegations that he had hired a prostitute himself. On Monday, BuzzFeed reported that Leonnig, citing three unnamed sources, wrote in May that Secret Service agents monitored an employee’s house for more than two months, a fact disputed in the same article by a Secret Service spokesman. BuzzFeed reported that a recent inspector general’s report indicated the monitoring only went on for a few days, as the spokesman claimed at the time.
Taken together, these instances raise questions about the sources, often anonymous, the Post relied on for its coverage of the Secret Service. Even so, executive editor Marty Baron has continued to defend the paper's reporting, as he did again Monday in an email to The Huffington Post.
“Three sources had told us that the individual was convicted, just as a whistleblower had informed Rep. Jason Chaffetz of the same,” Baron wrote, referencing the Utah Republican who has spearheaded congressional investigations into Secret Service misconduct.
“Without his name and without White House or Secret Service cooperation, we could not independently check the individual’s record," Baron continued. "Our standard practice is to correct stories when warranted. We did that immediately when we learned that there were multiple arrests but no conviction. With the individual now identified and providing his account, further reporting becomes possible. The incident continues to be regarded as a serious breach of security.”
The Post’s Sept. 30 piece on the elevator incident was a bombshell. Coming shortly after The Washington Examiner published an initial scoop on the matter, it greatly increased pressure on Pierson to step down. Chaffetz, who had grilled Pierson at a hearing hours earlier, tweeted the Post’s story when it went live and said he had confirmed the paper’s account with a “whistleblower.”
Pierson resigned the next day. It's unclear whether the new details about the elevator incident would have saved her job, since she was already under pressure for a variety of organizational lapses.
Tate's account of what happened when he met President Barack Obama, which he also provided to CNN on Monday, has little in common with the Post's story, which included Chaffetz's description of the man as a "felon." Tate has been arrested several times but has never been convicted, the Times reported.
The Post has since removed Chaffetz's quote from its Sept. 30 story. "When a quote includes incorrect information, it is removed," Baron said.
Baron did not respond to a question about how the Post remains confident in the other details provided by its anonymous sources, given that the claim that Tate was a felon is inaccurate.
Tate, who worked as a private security guard at the CDC in Atlanta, told the Times that he had been assigned to accompany Obama on the elevator when he visited on Sept. 19. By his account, he had a cordial exchange with the president while in the elevator and tried to take a photo of him getting into his limousine. Secret Service agents informed Tate he’d gotten too close to the limo and told his bosses. Tate says they were angry about the incident and he was fired the following week.
However, the Post’s version, citing “people familiar with the incident,” reported that Tate “first aroused the agents’ concerns when he acted oddly and did not comply with their orders to stop using a cellphone camera to record the president in the elevator.” Leonnig also reported that agents stayed behind after Obama left the elevator to question Tate and found he had a “criminal history.” Leonnig reported that the guard had been fired on the spot.
Secret Service agents erred in not being aware Tate was armed, which is a violation of protocol. But if Tate's account is correct, any violation wasn't his fault, considering he was tasked with escorting the president on the elevator and was carrying a gun issued by his employer.
The Times’ Michael Schmidt, who interviewed Tate, reported that “Secret Service and the C.D.C. have not released a chronology of what occurred that day, making it difficult to assess the accuracy” of the guard’s account. Schmidt also noted that the president of Professional Security Corporation, Tate's employer, said Tate's account was “not correct" without elaborating further. An unnamed Secret Service official indicated to Schmidt that Tate's account "was largely consistent with what an agency investigation had found."
In an interview with The Huffington Post a couple hours before The Times published its piece, Chaffetz laid the blame for the erroneous report at the feet of the administration. He said he had based his Sept. 30 comments “on what I heard from whistleblowers, and certainly the White House had plenty of opportunities to respond.”
“The White House and Secret Service never denied it,” Chaffetz said. “They didn’t run away from the story.”