Polaris A Takshashila Institution Blog on International Politics and Security

It Happened One Night

08.04.2011 · Posted in Media, Pakistan, U.S. Military

Criticism of The New Yorker for obscuring the sources for its report on the bin Laden killing is not reason enough to doubt its accuracy.

I have never met Nicholas Schmidle, who wrote this gripping—if embellished—account in The New Yorker of  the May 2 raid on Abbottabad that resulted in the killing of Osama bin Laden. Over the years, I have read his dispatches from Pakistan, and I believe we have several mutual acquaintances. I do, however, know Dr. Christine Fair, having first met her about five years ago in Washington, and subsequently at numerous South Asia-related seminars. I requested that she write an article—which was a very good one, in fact—on Pakistan. And although I never studied under her, she was a faculty member in my graduate school program. So it was with some interest that I read her vicious take-down of Schmidle’s reporting.

Fair’s main critique is spot on. Schmidle never interviewed the Navy SEALS who conducted the raid, but his New Yorker article leaves the reader with the strong impression that he did. I, too, was surprised upon discovering this, and began to consider the article in a somewhat different light. Schmidle—or his editors—should have been up front about this aspect of his reporting, and the fact that they deceived readers through such a deliberate omission reflects poorly on both the publication and Schmidle himself. However, there is nothing—yet—to indicate that Schmidle’s narrative, even if dramatized, is in any way inaccurate. When first-hand sources are not available, second-hand sources must often suffice.

Dr. Fair’s criticism, however, extends much farther than this important omission. She cites a 2008 report by Schmidle, in which he claimed to understand a conversation between a group of people, of whom “most” spoke Pashto, a language Schmidle does not comprehend. This detail is used to cast doubts on Schmidle’s credibility as a journalist. But perhaps some of those he observed were speaking Urdu. Or perhaps he had an interpreter whom he failed to mention, a more serious omission, but not an uncommon one for foreign journalists. Bottom line: he could be a shoddy reporter for all I know—I have certainly been less than impressed by some of his stories—but this minor detail alone is not enough for me to question the credibility of his entire article. So far, Jayson Blair he ain’t.

In Dr. Fair’s view, though, the veracity of Schmidle’s reporting is particularly important because larger issues are at stake. His credibility (or, rather, lack thereof) undermines the credibility of the events that transpired on May 2, which, as Dr. Fair points out, many Muslims doubt. She also notes that Schmidle’s father is a senior U.S. military officer, and implies that the very fact that the younger Schmidle authored the report might point to his being part of a disinformation campaign.  And she criticizes his mentioning the detail that the SEAL who shot bin Laden said “For God and country” believing this statement could be misread in Pakistan and perpetuate the sense of a war against Islam. As an agnostic Hindu, I would say that the statement alone does not necessarily imply a Christian-Muslim civilizational clash. Muslims too believe in a capital-G god, and many religious Muslims despise bin Laden and the corrupt strain of Islam he stood for. If true, should the detail have been obscured by a journalist because of the sensitivities of a possible second-hand audience? That, I think, would have amounted to shoddy journalism. As Fair herself notes: “Journalists have an important function: informing our publics.” True. Even when sometimes the details might have unpredictable consequences.

At no point is Fair’s criticism persuasive about the inaccuracy of Schmidle’s report. Certainly, he should have been more transparent about his sources. But her relatively minor grouse regarding a prior article and his father’s role in the military hierarchy are not at all convincing (his father was, after all, not involved in the raid, which might have pointed to a conflict of interest). Regarding her other two criticisms, it is in fact Fair who inadvertently fans the flames of conspiracy theories about what did or did not occur, and it is she who suggests that narrative details should have been suppressed in a breach of journalistic integrity.

Again, I don’t know Schmidle and am no fan of his. It could turn out, with the passage of time, that his report is inaccurate and possibly even fabricated, and if that is the case we can reassess his credibility. But Fair’s criticism, beyond the deliberate obfuscation of his sources, is on very weak ground.  Although she claimed, in subsequent conversations on Twitter, that her criticism of Schmidle was purely professional and not at all personal, her characterization of Schmidle in one tweet, ”BIlkul chut hai woh.” (Sic)—a phrase that even Schmidle, with his allegedly sub-par Urdu, should comprehend—might suggest otherwise.

Policy wonks are not all that unlike journalists. We too try to piece together accurate information from data that is often incomplete, based on our own travel, interviews, archival research, secondary readings or surveys. We too make mistakes. Articles I have published based on what I deemed the most accurate information available have, in time, turned out to be incomplete, misleading or inaccurate, and I have felt it my duty to try to correct these details in subsequent writing. But since we are trying to guide policy, it is expected that—unlike journalists—we take value-laden positions on desirable end-states, making it impossible to avoid judgment. Dr. Fair, while well-known in academic and policy circles for her fierce adherence to proper research methodology, has also been known to fall prey to inaccurate information, often with important consequences.  I cannot critique her work on Afghanistan and Pakistan, countries about which I claim minimal knowledge and with which I have little experience, but I am on firmer ground in assessing her work on India. At least three cases stand out.

In a March 2009 online roundtable on Pakistan, hosted on Foreign Affairs‘ web site, Dr. Fair wrote: “Having visited the Indian mission in Zahedan, Iran, I can assure you they are not issuing visas as the main activity! Moreover, India has run operations from its mission in Mazar (through which it supported the Northern Alliance) and is likely doing so from the other consulates it has reopened in Jalalabad and Qandahar along the border. Indian officials have told me privately that they are pumping money into Baluchistan.” These were serious allegations, and were disputed by another roundtable participant, Ashley Tellis: “I am not sure I buy Christine’s analysis of Indian activities in Pakistan’s west: this is a subject I followed very closely when I was in government, and suffice it to say, there is less there than meets the eye. That was certainly true for Afghanistan. Convincing Pakistanis of this, however, is a different story.” Fair did not detail when she was in Zahedan, what it was the Indian consulate was doing, when India supported the Northern Alliance from Mazar (i.e. before or after the initial expulsion of the Taliban in 2001-2002), and which officials told her about Indian activities in Balochistan. She surmised, based on India’s alleged activities in Mazar, that its consulates were doing the same in Jalalabad and Kandahar.  Her lack of detail meant that the worst was implied. Sure enough, the Pakistani press went to town over her statement, as it was a seemingly neutral and expert confirmation of Pakistani claims about its insecurities vis-a-vis India. Such claims have been used to justify Pakistan’s clandestine activities against India as retaliatory. Later, when pressed on the sources for her claims in an interview, Dr. Fair said: “I have never gone to any lengths to look at that issue and I do not know anyone who has a line of credible information.” Perhaps, then, she could have been more transparent about this at the outset.

A second example was as the November 2008 attacks on Mumbai were raging. Very little credible information was then available in the public domain about the perpetrators and planners of the attacks. In an interview with the New York Times, however, Dr. Fair, while at first careful to say there was little evidence about the perpetrators, concluded: “Indians will have a strong incentive to link this to Al Qaeda…But this is a domestic issue. This is not India’s 9/11.” There have undoubtedly been attacks both before and after 26/11 linked to domestic terror groups, but her assertion was nonetheless a strong one, based on little credible information, and particularly insensitive given that the gunmen’s  rampage was still ongoing. As it turns out, the attacks were not domestic but planned in Pakistan and executed by Pakistanis. Lashkar-e-Taiba, rather than al Qaeda, was fingered. And many Indians do equate the events of 26/11 with 9/11. Okay. In all fairness, everyone—myself included—has made statements in public with relatively little thought, and short quotes in newspapers can easily obscure context. Academic arguments, by contrast, are generally more nuanced. That leads me to my third example.

In the Summer 2007 edition of The Washington Quarterly, Dr. Fair published an article on the India-Iran relationship. She argued that India-Iran relations had been deliberately underestimated by American proponents of the U.S.-India nuclear deal, and that relations had “much to do with India’s great power aspirations and New Delhi’s concomitant expansive agenda for Central Asia and beyond, within which energy is only one, albeit important, consideration.” This contradicted the U.S. government’s emphasis on the energy dimension of the relationship.  She supported her assertion of shared Indo-Iranian wariness about American unipolarity by quoting then Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee’s call for ”dialogue” to resolve Iran’s nuclear impasse, a statement in line with most of the international community at the time. On defense cooperation, she relayed Iran’s wish-list for arms sales, refitted equipment, and spare parts from India, but did not detail whether India had agreed to supply these (later in the article, she conceded “Even if the volume of hard military transfers is inconsequential at this point…”).  She made her claim about the Indian consulate in Zahedan being a bastion for Indian intelligence, saying it “affords New Delhi an enhanced ability to monitor Pakistan and even launch subconventional operations against Pakistan.” And she also brought up the prospect of greater civilian nuclear cooperation between India and Iran, based on a handful of questionable media reports. All of this—particularly in the absence of the broader context of Indian foreign policy (including its burgeoning relations with the United States and Israel)—served to exaggerate the proximity of Indo-Iranian relations at a particularly delicate juncture for enhancing ties between India and the United States.

None of these examples should be taken as reason to suspect Dr. Fair’s motives, or her academic credibility. Her reputation for research is formidable and well-deserved, and her writing immensely enjoyable. But I do think her criticism of the Schmidle report was unwarranted, disproportionate, and on weak grounds. A lot is indeed at stake, and getting facts right is paramount. Unless there are more compelling reasons to doubt Schmidle’s narrative, it should continue to be taken seriously. The examples of Dr. Fair’s work above, I believe, show that even the best of us can unwittingly obscure context and make basic reporting errors when writing about international security, an inherently fluid and uncertain field. I certainly have.


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