A national media watchdog organization and several groups opposed to U.S. policy in Central America have charged KNBC and three other California television stations with "irresponsible and flimsy" journalism for reporting earlier this month that the California Highway Patrol had warned its officers that they are the "special target of a Nicaraguan terrorist group" operating in the United States.
While KNBC stands by its story, a CHP officer in the department's investigative services division has told The Times that the CHP memo that spawned the story incorrectly identified three men involved in an April 27 shoot-out with the CHP as Nicaraguan terrorists. The deputy district attorney prosecuting the case said he discounts the memo's contents entirely, and other law enforcement officials said they know of no such terrorist group.
Critics believe that the story, which was first reported in Miami and then was picked up by KNBC and TV stations in San Francisco, Sacramento and San Diego, was planted as part of a "disinformation" campaign designed to discredit the Nicaraguan government.
"We think it's a particularly inflammatory story without any substance," said Ted Hajjar, founder of the Nicaragua Task Force in Los Angeles, which opposes U.S. aid to the Contras and advocates Nicaragua's right to determine its own form of government.
KNBC reported on its 4 p.m. newscast Sept. 2 that an "extraordinary" CHP memo containing "secret intelligence information" had gone out to officers warning "that they are special targets of a Nicaraguan terrorist group." Reported by Jim Giggans, the story ran about two minutes; shorter versions were read by anchors on the 5, 6 and 11 p.m. newscasts that day.
"Authorities believe that members of Nicaragua's National Liberation Front, better known as the FSLN, come to the United States to support their organization by committing armed robberies and smuggling drugs," Giggans said on the 4 p.m. newscast. "They are vehemently anti-American and consider themselves in a state of undeclared war with the United States. And even in a routine traffic stop, there is invariably bloodshed."
KNBC said "three suspected members" of the terrorist group were in jail in San Luis Obispo, two of whom "are accused of the murder of a Miami police officer and the attempted murder of two CHP officers" near Templeton, Calif., last April 27.
Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, a national organization that monitors the news media for what it considers biased reporting, has written to KNBC news director Tom Capra asking that the station either provide "further documentation" to confirm the report or "publicly retract this unconfirmed allegation. . . ."
The Times made several requests to speak with Capra directly, but a KNBC spokeswoman said that Capra, who is in South Korea overseeing Channel 4's coverage of the Olympics, was not available to speak with The Times or to respond to FAIR's request.
Pete Noyes, managing editor of KNBC's news department, told The Times that the story was "not a retractable item" and that Channel 4 had no plans to air a rebuttal to the piece. He said KNBC was investigating the story further and would report any additional information if it is found.
CHP spokesman Kent Milton in Sacramento confirmed that the CHP wrote the memo several months ago, in the wake of an April 27 incident in which two men allegedly opened fire on two CHP officers during the course of a routine traffic stop. Douglas and Dennis Escobar--Nicaraguan-born brothers--were shot several times by the CHP officers and taken into custody, along with a third man who stayed in the car during the gunfire.
The Escobars have been in jail in San Luis Obispo County ever since--charged with two counts each of attempted first degree murder of a CHP officer and other lesser crimes associated with the incident, including illegal use of a firearm and auto theft. They have pleaded not guilty, and trial is set for Nov. 7.
The other man was released shortly after the April incident without being charged.
Stephen Traught, the San Luis Obispo deputy district attorney prosecuting the case against the Escobars, said that the Escobars are also suspects in the March 30 murder of a Miami police officer who was fatally shot while making a similar traffic stop. Miami authorities have questioned the brothers but have not filed formal charges against them.
Following the California shoot-out, the CHP wrote a memo that said all three men were Sandinista terrorists and part of a larger group that enters the United States through Mexico and is apparently based in San Francisco.
Milton described the memo as a "training bulletin" designed to promote officer safety. But he would neither elaborate nor comment on any of its details.
Sgt. Joe Farrow, who works in the CHP investigative services division in Sacramento, where the memo was written, confirmed in a telephone interview with The Times what he earlier had told the Miami Herald, that "We published a training bulletin. We didn't mean to imply that these guys were terrorists or gang members. . . . We can't say that these guys are Sandinista rebels."
"Nor," Farrow told The Times, "did we mean to imply that they are running up and down the freeways of California. We didn't mean to alarm anyone."
Farrow would not comment on why the CHP's training bulletin called the men Sandinista terrorists or on whether the CHP had any reason to suspect that such a terrorist organization exists.
None of the other law enforcement officials contacted said they were aware of attacks similar to the one described in the CHP memo, other than the slaying in Miami.
"No, I do not personally have any reason to suspect that there is any such terrorist group operating in the U.S.," said Bill Norsworthy, staff assistant to the special agent in charge of the El Paso Intelligence Center, a branch of the Drug Enforcement Agency that gathers intelligence on aliens, terrorism and narcotics and disseminates its findings to U.S. law enforcement agencies.
"My understanding is that this was a mock scenario put out as a training mission by the CHP," said Ralph Lochridge, a spokesman for the Drug Enforcement Agency in Los Angeles. Lochridge said he had no knowledge of any connection between the Sandinistas and the shoot-outs in California or Miami.
Traught said that during police interrogation following the gun battle, the two men had bragged that they had fought with the Sandinista rebel army in Nicaragua against the Somoza dictatorship in the late 1970s. The CHP may have picked up on that detail when drafting the bulletin, he said.
But, he added, "I have no evidence that these men are members of any kind of terrorist group. If you look at how they behaved that night, they are bumbling idiots, not professionally trained terrorists. This memo was loosely based on what happened here in this county and then embellished with this business about the Sandinistas."
Neither KNBC nor the public would have known anything about the CHP memo, except for the fact that a copy, which the CHP insists was never supposed to leave the department, was forwarded--the CHP says it doesn't know how--to the El Paso Intelligence Center. The El Paso center subsequently released parts of the CHP bulletin as "intelligence information" in its regular monthly briefing.
After receiving the bulletin from EPIC, the Metro-Dade Police Dept. in Miami issued it to its officers last month.
According to reporters in Miami, Spanish-language TV station WLTV obtained a copy of the Metro-Dade bulletin and, on Sept. 1, reported the contents of the memo along with an interview with a representative of the Contras in Miami, who corroborated the allegations in the bulletin.
Other Miami news media picked up the story the next day, and several television stations reported that Metro-Dade police believed the document to be authentic "intelligence information." Ralph Page, a former Metro-Dade police officer who is now an investigative reporter for WSVN-TV, NBC's Miami affiliate, said he explained to his audience that "intelligence information" could be "anything from the truth to a rumor overheard in a bar."
A source in the KNBC newsroom who did not want to be identified said that Channel 4 learned about the story from Miami stations WSVN and WTVJ. Noyes said that KNBC verified that the bulletin was an authentic CHP memo from several sources.
All of the KNBC reports said that "three members of the Sandinista National Liberation Front are in jail in San Luis Obispo," even though the third passenger arrested in the shoot-out had never been charged with the crime and had been free since last April.
Noyes acknowledged that the station erred on this point.
Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting and others have chastised KNBC for not including comments from either the Nicaraguan government or from Central American experts who could have challenged the allegations in the CHP bulletin, and for not following up the report with additional proof.
"I'm half Nicaraguan," said Lydia Brazon, spokeswoman for the Nicaraguan Cultural Center in Los Angeles, "and these kinds of lies affect all Nicaraguans living here. Imagine the panic that might have ensued in the whole Latino community when any two Latino men driving in a car suddenly become suspected terrorists."
Reports on the CHP allegations also aired Sept. 2 on CBS affiliates KXTV in Sacramento and KFMB in San Diego, and on KNBC's sister station in San Francisco, KRON, leading FAIR and other groups in San Diego, Berkeley and Los Angeles to charge that the story was part of a disinformation campaign designed to discredit the Nicaraguan government.
Channel 4's Noyes dismisses such charges. "I can assure you there was nothing political about our doing this story," Noyes said.
KRON-TV picked the story up from KNBC for its 11 p.m. newscast that evening, said Bob Rockstroh, KRON's 11 p.m. producer. Rockstroh said he asked his reporter to call news director Capra at KNBC, who, Rockstroh said, insisted that he had several sources confirming the story. KRON's reporter then called the CHP, which would neither confirm nor deny the report.
Rockstroh decided to go with the story but asked his reporter to lead with a disclaimer. "The first thing we said was, 'We don't know that this memo is worth the paper its printed on,' " Rockstroh said.
The next day, outraged members of the Nicaragua Information Center in Berkeley--another group that opposes U.S. policy in Central America--complained to the station that the story sounded "bizarre." If it were true, they asked, why hadn't any other media outlet in the Bay Area picked up on it?
KRON agreed to tape a response to the story from a spokesperson for the group, who questioned the veracity of the original report and labeled it a deliberate attempt to foster public antagonism toward Nicaragua. The 40-second response aired on KRON's afternoon newscast Sept. 3.
The Berkeley group also enlisted the aid of State Assemblyman Tom Bates (D-Oakland), who is looking into what his legislative aide called an "unnecessary and antagonistic" training memo.
"Assemblyman Bates believes that the idea that Nicaragua would target the CHP is preposterous and antagonistic," said Rachel Richman, his legislative aid in Berkeley. "He recognizes that the Highway Patrol needs to be properly trained to deal with all kinds of situations, but there is no need to use an exercise like this that can only serve to increase tension between the two countries."
Noyes said that Channel 4 would also do some further investigating into the background of the Escobar brothers to determine whether there is any reason to suspect they have any Sandinista affiliation.
A spokeswoman for KNBC said she did not know whether the station would respond to the criticism from FAIR and the other organizations. Capra, she said, will return from Korea following the conclusion of the Olympics this weekend.