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MediaWatch: May 1992

Vol. Six No. 5

Janet Cooke Award: PBS on the October Surprise: Oops

Conspiracy has dominated the minds at PBS. When its lobbyists aren't constructing enemies lists of conservative critics (to which MediaWatch has been named), its producers are spending thousands of dollars investigating would-be scandals of the Reagan years. Now, for the second time, Frontline has investigated the "October Surprise," the theory that the Reagan campaign, headed by William Casey, delayed the release of the Iranian hostages in 1980. For its series, in which the second episode renounced some (but not all) of the liars they presented as credible experts in the first, only to offer more preposterous theories to explain their mistakes, Frontline earns the Janet Cooke Award.

BRENNEKE. In the second program on April 7, PBS admitted: "Some self-proclaimed witnesses to an arms-for-hostages deal have turned out to be not credible at all." The first and most notorious witness that PBS presented the second time around was Richard Brenneke. In the April 1991 show, Frontline announced: "Although Brenneke's credibility remains in question, government records show that he did work with European arms dealers supplying Iran during the 1980s. According to one document, Brenneke once informed a Pentagon intelligence officer about top secret TOW missile sales to Iran three days before President Reagan authorized them." The documentary tried to prove Brenneke's claims by arguing that Bush aide Donald Gregg lied about his role.

Frontline reporter (and co-writer) Robert Parry defended Brenneke in the April 27, 1991 Washington Post: "Brenneke's 1990 trial was the government's chance to disprove the allegations once and for all. But the government failed to convince even a single juror that Brenneke had lied. The tally on the five-count indictment was Brenneke 60, the government zero. Despite impressing the jury, Brenneke's credibility is still assailed by [NBC producer Mark] Hosenball." Parry concluded: "Hosenball can't seem to accept that government officials don't always tell the truth, while sometimes unsavory characters do."

After the first show, former ABC News producer Frank Snepp, who had used Brenneke as a source at ABC, wrote a Village Voice article proving Brenneke was lying. Credit card receipts placed Brenneke in Portland during alleged Paris meetings. In the second show, Frontline (and Parry) ate their words: "Whether he lied for personal gain or for some other motive, it's a mystery why he presented his Paris story under oath to a federal judge in an unrelated case four years ago."

In a recent letter to the Committee for Media Integrity, Frontline Executive Editor Louis Wiley wrote that Frontline's 1990 decision to start their investigation "was based on two factors: (1) the acquittal of Brenneke and (2) the shift in views of Gary Sick who, once skeptical, had come to the conclusion a deal had been struck."

But Frontline was forced in its second show to admit Brenneke's acquittal meant nothing. Sick's sudden conversion is belied by a 1988 quote in the Rocky Mountain News: "At first I dismissed this, but not any more. I'm convinced that on the basis of what I heard that there were some meetings in Paris." Sick is also questioned by Steven Emerson, a co-author of last fall's New Republic exposé. Emerson has done a page-by-page, line-by line critical analysis of Sick's book, and an excerpt is slated for a forthcoming New Republic.

Frontline Senior Producer Martin Smith told MediaWatch that even though Brenneke lied about Paris, he might not be lying about everything: "Calling somebody a liar is handy, but does that mean that everything they say is a lie, and does it explain what their motivation was? No. If you're solving a mystery, what does that give you? The fact that he lies about his presence in Paris makes him somebody that, he's a troubling character. Why the hell did he do this?...I hope someday we can understand what, who he is, what he's about."

BEN-MENASHE. Ari Ben-Menashe appeared three times in the first show, highlighted as an Israeli intelligence officer. PBS reported that "Israeli intelligence officer Ari Ben-Menashe says he was one of half a dozen Israelis sent to Paris at Casey's request to help coordinate arms deliveries" and "Israeli intelligence officer Ari Ben-Menashe claimed that he saw intelligence reports about Casey's trip to Madrid." After Newsweek and The New Republic published their exposés of the sources pushing the October Surprise story, including the fact that Ben-Menashe's wife called him a liar, Frontline's second program admitted: "His credibility with reporters collapsed because some of his assertions proved implausible, particularly his claim about George Bush."

THE HASHEMIS. While Frontline disavowed Brenneke and Ben-Menashe, the producers stood by their belief in the Hashemi brothers, Jamshid and Cyrus, a pair of Iranian arms dealers. This despite the New Republic exposé, which declared Jamshid Hashemi had "even worse credibility problems" than Brenneke and Ben-Menashe; and the Village Voice placed Cyrus as flying from Paris instead of to Paris on August 14, when the meetings supposedly took place.

SHIFTING STORIES. Since new evidence repudiated their theories about an October Surprise, Frontline proceeded to offer up new ones. In the first show, Frontline contemplated the horrible possibility that the Reagan campaign sought to delay the release of the hostages. In the second, they completely shifted course, investigating whether "Republican contacts with Iranians did exist, but were intended not to delay a hostage release, but to win their release as early as possible."

The broadcast ended with yet another theory: that the CIA sent out Brenneke to lie and discredit October Surprise investigations. "The allegation that Brenneke participated in Paris meetings was not at first put forward by Brenneke himself," but by a Mr. Razine, otherwise known as Oswald LeWinter. "He claimed that he had been hired by four American intelligence operatives to salt October Surprise allegations with enough false information to discredit the whole story....If nothing else, the story of Oswald LeWinter seems to epitomize the strange nature of the riddle called the October Surprise." But it's not as puzzling as it would seem: PBS aired a bunch of exposed liars, and nothing PBS found proved an October Surprise.

Perhaps there's a better theory: Knowing that PBS served as a haven for left-wing anti-CIA conspiracy theorists, Casey decided to leave his calendar bare, so that after his death, PBS documentary producers would embarrass themselves by spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to prove nothing. It worked.