W. Thomas Smith., Jr., the controversial web-based reporter who wrote disputed stories from Lebanon, has resigned from his position as a contributor to National Review Online's The Tank blog. Smith had been the subject of a lengthy piece on the Huffington Post raising questions about the accuracy of his work.
Smith, in a statement published by NRO, wrote:
"This is my own decision. No one at NRO has asked me to do this, nor has anyone suggested or even hinted I should. But I believe this to be in the best interest of the publication which I have so much respect for. Both NRO and I have taken far too much heat for something which would never have happened had I been more specific in terms of detailing my sourcing while blogging about Lebanon at 'The Tank'. That is a responsibility I have to accept."
In addition to writing for NRO, Smith, a former Marine, is the director the Counterterrorism Research Center at the Family Security Foundation, and the executive editor of World Defense Review. He co-authored The Complete Idiot's Guide to Understanding Intelligent Design.
In a "Word to Our Readers" accompanying Smith's resignation statement, NRO editor Kathryn Jean Lopez apologized to viewers of the site, telling them:
"We should have required Smith to clearly source all of his original reporting from Lebanon. Smith let himself become susceptible to spin by those taking him around Lebanon, so his reporting from there should be read with that knowledge. (We are attaching this note to all his Lebanon reporting.) This was an editing failure as much as it was a reporting failure. We let him down, and we let you down, and we're taking steps to make sure it doesn't happen again."
Lopez said that after the Huffington Post raised questions about two of Smith's reports, she ordered an internal investigation with the following conclusions:
1. With regard to the post filed September 29 in which Smith claimed that 4,000-5,000 Hezbollah gunmen deployed to East Beirut in a "show of force": It appears that Smith was either confused about what he saw or misled by his sources -- probably some combination of both. Two of our independent sources agreed with Smith's critics that the event was unlikely, and one -- an editor who lives and works in Beirut -- flatly stated that it didn't happen.
Smith told us that he didn't see weapons -- only men he identified as Hezbollah standing in intersections with radios. He said his sources filled in the rest. "We were driving," he said. "We were going down the road, and I see these guys I identify as Hezbollah at road intersections with radios, and I'm asking what's going on. I'm told these people are Hezbollah. Later on, when I'm back at the [The International Lebanese Committee for UNSCR 1559] headquarters, I'm told that these were Hezbollah militants deploying to Christian areas of Beirut, and there were four or five thousand of them." (The International Lebanese Committee for UNSCR 1559 is an anti-Syrian, anti-Hezbollah group.)
I don't think that Smith fabricated or falsified his reporting. But he should have been more clear about what exactly he saw with his own eyes, and he should have attributed any other information about the event to his sources (along with caveats about their credibility, if necessary.) We've decided that, absent independent verification that the event happened as Smith described, we cannot stand by the story.
2. With regard to the post filed September 25 in which Smith claimed that a Hezbollah tent city near the Lebanese parliament was occupied by over 200 "heavily armed" militiamen: Smith's description falls within the bounds of what others told us about the camp, but he should have been more specific. Smith saw a few guns and, based on that and what he heard from others, he reported that the men in the camp were "heavily armed."
One of our independent sources told us that both Smith and his critics got it wrong: "In late September there were rarely more than a few dozen people in the tent city on any given day,' she said. 'It is thus unlikely that there were 200 people there when Smith passed by, let alone 200 'heavily-armed militiamen'."
But she also told us, "Mr. Smith's characterization of the tent city as a very real security threat positioned on the doorstep of both the parliament and the Serail [the prime minister's headquarters] is wholly legitimate. There may not be 200 people there now, but Hezbollah could mobilize a much larger number than that quite quickly, and... it is believed that there are weapons already on the premises. In light of this, I would have to say that the criticisms cited -- which downplay the security threat posed by the camp -- are at least as misleading as Smith's post itself."
Nevertheless, we think this is another instance where Smith should have been clearer about what he saw as opposed to what he was told. Having reviewed his work, we cannot vouch for the accuracy of his reporting. In general, too much of Smith's information came from sources who had an incentive to exaggerate the threat Hezbollah poses to Lebanon -- and these sources influenced his reporting for the whole of his trip.