ABC's Brian Ross has a history of bizarre "scoops" (like this one, when he announced that Hillary Clinton had indeed been in the White House the day Monica went down on her knees). And yet, ABC News is still proud to have him as their chief investigative correspondent, for some odd reason.
Now he overreaches on yet another story, this one claiming Nidal Malik Hasan attempted to contact al Qaeda. You heard it all over the news, right? Via Gawker:
ABC News' Brian Ross has a breathtaking record of recklessly inaccurate, overhyped stories that don't live up to the headline. His scoop yesterday about Nidal Malik Hasan's "attempt to reach out to al Qaeda" was one of them.
Ross' report yesterday that Hasan had attempted to "make contact with people associated with al Qaeda" took over the internet yesterday and sparked a furious round of speculation that Hasan's attack was part of an Islamic terrorist plot. The headline, "Officials: U.S. Army Told of Hasan's Contacts with al Qaeda," said it all. The far more mundane truth emerged today in the pages of the New York Times and the Washington Post: Hasan had communicated via e-mail with Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical American cleric living in Yemen who formerly served as the imam of a mosque Hasan had attended in Virginia. What did they talk about? From the Washington Post:
The FBI determined that the e-mails did not warrant an investigation, according to the law enforcement official. Investigators said Hasan's e-mails were consistent with the topic of his academic research and involved some social chatter and religious discourse.
We were confused this morning, because Ross had clearly reported that Hasan had made contact with "people associated with Al Qaeda," and the only contacts that other reporters were confirming were with al-Awlaki, who is, as far as we know, a single person. We called Ross and asked him if there were more "people." No, he told us, his initial report was only in reference to al-Awlaki.
"That's how it was initially described to me by my sources," he says. "Given what they told me, that's all I could say. It's a strange use of the word 'people.' But when pinned down, my sources said it's just al-Awlaki."
A strange use, indeed. How about false, too? Especially because Ross' original story did, in fact, report that al-Awliki was among the "people" Hasan was suspected of having contacted. So he reported that Hasan contacted more than one person associated with al Qaeda, and then named one person that he was suspected of contacting. What he apparently didn't bother to do was "pin his sources down" on exactly what they were saying. The result was a clear suggestion that Hasan had tried to communicate with the al Qaeda network on more than one occasion.
So did he? Al-Awlaki is routinely described by the FBI and others as an al Qaeda supporter, and a fiery inciter of violence against infidels. And he was the imam at the Virginia mosque attended by two of the 9/11 hijackers, as well as Hasan. But while it's clear that Al-Awlaki is a bad guy, what's not clear is whether he's simply a propagandist or someone who actually operates as a part of al Qaeda. It's one thing for Hasan to have sent e-mails to someone who vocally supports al Qaeda, and quite another for him to have sent e-mails to al Qaeda itself, or to operatives actively involved in trying to kill people. Ross told us that, according to his sources, "Al-Awlaki is considered a recruiter," which is how he justified invoking the name of the terrorist network. We'll defer to him on that point.
But without knowing what the e-mails are about, can it really be known that Hasan's communications were "attempts to reach out"? The FBI didn't consider them as such. Ross didn't know the contents of the e-mails when he described them that way, but felt perfectly justified in doing so based solely on the knowledge that Hasan had sent the e-mails.
We asked Ross if he had tried to contact Al-Awlaki in reporting the story:
So you reached out to al Qaeda, then?
"To al Qaeda? No. I reached out to him. Oh. I see what you're saying."