Battling over the Army ‘Diarist’
If this week’s odd events involving the venerable New Republic and the raffish Drudge Report demonstrate nothing else, it’s clearer than ever that an unnervingly large part of our public comment now occurs in what amounts to a deeply politicized Wild West, where virtual mob rule prevails.
The two have collided over the murky case of Army Pvt. Scott Thomas Beauchamp, who last July wrote a pseudonymous “Baghdad Diarist” piece for the New Republic. In his account, Beauchamp described various ways in which the occupation of Iraq brutalized soldiers in his combat infantry unit. He described the ridicule of a disfigured Iraqi woman, attempts to run over stray dogs with Bradley fighting vehicles and the mistreatment of dead children’s remains.
The online edition of the conservative Weekly Standard and an array of pro-war bloggers quickly raised doubts about the plausibility of the events Beauchamp described. The writer’s identity quickly was revealed and both the New Republic and the Army investigated. The magazine determined that the incident involving the disfigured woman was concocted and corrected that, but also reported that interviews with Beauchamp’s comrades substantiated his version of the other events. The Army’s investigators refused to release details of their findings, but said in an e-mail that Beauchamp’s “allegations are false, his platoon and company were interviewed, and no one could substantiate the claims he made.” A report in the Weekly Standard alleged that, as part of the Army investigation, the private also had signed a statement totally disavowing his piece. When the New Republic inquired about such a statement, an Army spokesman denied it existed.
Since then, Beauchamp has remained in Iraq with his unit and the magazine has been unable to communicate with him. Both the New Republic -- still unable to determine whether its story was true or false -- and bloggers interested in the case -- enraged that the story had “defamed” and “dishonored” the U.S. military -- have filed Freedom of Information Act requests for release of documents produced by the Army’s inquiry.
There things remained until Wednesday, when the Drudge Report suddenly posed one of its rare reportorial “exclusives.” Under a headline reading “THE NEW REPUBLIC ‘SHOCK TROOPS’ STORY COLLAPSES,” an unnamed writer said:
“The DRUDGE REPORT has obtained internal documents from the investigation of THE NEW REPUBLIC’S ‘Baghdad Diarist,’ Scott Thomas Beauchamp, an Army private turned war correspondent who reported tales of military malfeasance from the Iraq War front.
“The documents appear to expose that once the veracity of Beauchamp’s diaries were called into question, and an Army investigation ensued, THE NEW REPUBLIC has failed to publicly account for publishing slanderous falsehoods about the U.S. military in a time of war.”
The Drudge writer, whoever that may be, then went on to list four documents he or she had obtained. Two were transcripts of a Sept. 7 telephone conference call in which Beauchamp, with at least two military superiors present with him in Iraq, spoke at length with New Republic editor Franklin Foer and the magazine’s executive editor Peter Scoblic. At a certain point in the conversation, the latter two telephonically included the lawyer the magazine had retained to represent Beauchamp. In the course of this conversation, Beauchamp repeatedly refused to confirm or deny the details of his diarist piece and professed his desire to devote himself entirely to fulfilling his duties as a soldier.
One of the documents is a kind of executive summary of the Army’s investigation, concluding that Beauchamp’s article was entirely false and recommending that he receive psychiatric treatment. The fourth document, according to Drudge, was “a signed ‘Memorandum for Record’ in which Beauchamp recants his stories and concedes the facts of the Army’s investigation -- that his stories contained ‘gross exaggerations and inaccurate allegations of misconduct’ by his fellow soldiers.”
It was interesting to note that Drudge provided links to the transcripts and report but not to the purported “Memorandum for Record.” (In fact, signing such a document -- if it exists -- is not an admission of guilt, but merely an acknowledgment that the person under investigation has been shown the contents.) Far more interesting was the fact that within several hours, Drudge had, without explanation, removed the “exclusive” from his website. The item still can be found in the report’s archives, but links to the documents have been disabled. No notice or explanation is appended to the archived item.
It’s a fascinating question, but in the orgy of pro-war Internet comment that surged through the blogosphere, no one bothered to ask in any serious way why Drudge might have dropped an item of this consequence so quickly.
It’s also not at all clear to any fair-minded reader what the telephone transcripts actually show beyond Foer’s and Scoblic’s appalling judgment in setting up a situation in which their writer discussed his situation with his lawyer in front of third parties and may, thereby, have waived his right to claim attorney-client privilege. To a dispassionate reader, the transcripts can just as easily suggest that Beauchamp was speaking under coercion. The Army’s report, as leaked to Drudge, is a statement of conclusions without evidence. Since there was no link to the purported memorandum, we must take its existence on faith.
According to sources at the New Republic, who asked to remain anonymous, Foer and Scoblic never were informed that the Army was taping their telephone conversation with Beauchamp, though they had every reason to presume that was so. These sources also say that since Sept. 7, Foer has had two additional telephone conversations with Beauchamp when none of his superiors were present. According to a knowledgeable source, in both of those calls Beauchamp denied signing an admission that his story was false and apart from the incident already corrected, insisted the story was true.
Thus, the New Republic awaits the Army’s compliance with the FOI request before deciding whether any further correction or explanation to its readers is required.
There are questions to be asked, though you won’t see them in the pro-war blogosphere:
* Who leaked the documents to Drudge and why, among all the documents the Army must have collected in this case, was one of them a transcript that could be used to put Foer and Scoblic in a bad light?
* Why did Drudge take the documents down and why hasn’t he explained his reasons for doing so?
* Why no original link to the Memorandum, the only document that would have contained evidence?
* Why has the Army kept Beauchamp in Iraq where it can control access to him and he’s beyond the reach of any other jurisdiction?
* Why hasn’t the Army complied with the New Republic’s FOI request?
Thursday, bloggers sympathetic to the war began circulating the idea that Beauchamp has suffered enough, that he now has demonstrated a willingness to be “a good soldier” and should be given “a second chance.” Michael Yon, the ex-Green Beret who blogs as a “citizen journalist” from inside Iraq, even happened to encounter Beauchamp’s commanding officer, who said the private should be left alone and allowed to honorably complete his service. Who knew the Army was awash in such compassion?
Why the attempt to shift attention off the alleged fabulist, Beauchamp, and onto the editors of the magazine, who after initially supporting the invasion, have turned decisively against the war?
Somebody is playing politics with Scott Thomas Beauchamp, but it isn’t the editors of the New Republic.