Friday, November 30, 2007
A Note to Readers [W. Thomas Smith Jr.]
Some unfinished business from before the Thanksgiving holiday: A reporter recently contacted NRO questioning the accuracy of two blog posts I filed for “The Tank” while I was in Lebanon this past September and October.
On September 25, I filed a post, in which I described a “sprawling Hezbollah tent city” near the Lebanese parliament as being occupied by “some 200-plus heavily armed Hezbollah militiamen”: According to the e-mail, my detractors said that, “…there are rarely 200 people there at all — much less ‘heavily armed,’” and, “…at least once a week I walk or jog through this area. I have never seen a civilian carrying a weapon.”
I can’t possibly know what someone else saw or witnessed or where they were jogging or on what day. But I do know this: The Hezbollah camp in late September — and up until the time I left in mid-October — was huge (“sprawling”). And though the tents were very large and many of them closed, I saw at least two AK-47s there with my own eyes. And this from a moving vehicle on the highway above the camp. And in my way of thinking, if a guy’s got an AK-47, he’s “heavily armed.”
Did I physically see and count 200 men carrying weapons? No. If I mistakenly conveyed that impression to my readers, I apologize. I saw lots of men, lots of them carrying walkie-talkie radios, and a tent city that could have easily housed many more than 200. I also saw weapons, as did others in the vehicle with me. And I was informed by very reliable sources that Hezbollah does indeed store arms inside the tents. And they’ve certainly got the parliamentarians and other government officials spooked and surrounded by layers of security.
My detractors’ argument that they had never seen weapons in the camp does not mean there is an absence of weapons. But don’t take my word for it. For further reading, I would recommend this recent AP article (and multiple others) about the increasing prevalence of armed civilians in Lebanon. I would say I was justified in believing not only my sources, but also my own eyes in this case.
Hezbollah is storing and stockpiling weapons all over the country, including a huge “stronghold” — and my detractors are apparently faulting me for using that word, too — in a Beirut suburb, Al Dahiyeh, not far from the tent city. And I’ll go one better than that. They are firing those weapons into the sky almost every time Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah gives a public speech. I saw that too, and I heard the shooting. I watched the tracers. And I saw many of the weapons on at least two ventures into al Dahiyeh.
And as far as whether or not al Dahiyeh is a “Hezbollah stronghold,” that’s exactly what it is (just as the Hezbollah camp near the parliament was a “sprawling tent city”). I called al Dahiyeh a “Hezbollah stronghold” back in September or October. The AP recently called it a “Hezbollah stronghold.” Reuters last week called it a “Hezbollah bastion.” Moreover, it’s an extremely dangerous place that Hezbollah does not want the rest of the world knowing the full truth about.
Now, should I have been more specific in my writing in terms of what I physically witnessed as opposed to what I learned from sources regarding the tent city? I wish I had, but it was a blog, which tends to be less formal. However, when blogs contain original reporting, that reporting needs to be sourced. In the future, I’ll provide more context.
Second, with regard to the post I filed September 29, in which I reported that between 4,000-5,000 Hezbollah gunmen had “deployed to the Christian areas of Beirut in an unsettling ‘show of force’”: My detractors have said this event, “simply never happened,” because “every journalist in town would have pounced on that story, and he’s the only one who noticed?”
In retrospect, however, this is a case where I should have caveated the reporting by saying that I only witnessed a fraction of what happened (from a moving car), with broader details of what I saw ultimately told to me by what I considered then — and still consider to be — reliable sources within the Cedar Revolution movement, as well as insiders within the Lebanese national security apparatus. As we were driving through that part of town, I saw men I identified as Hezbollah deployed at road intersections with radios. I was later told that these were Hezbollah militants deploying to Christian areas of Beirut, and there were four or five thousand of them.
Since then, I have not been able to independently verify that “thousands” of armed Hezbollah fighters deployed to the Christian areas of Beirut in late September, but my sources continue to insist that it happened. Furthermore, it is widely known that Hezbollah routinely moves caravans of young men through that part of the city, even if they do not always display weapons or make a “show of force.” And it was certainly widely reported in the international press that Hezbollah deployed in the thousands south of the Litani a few weeks ago, though the question of whether it was an actual deployment or a paper deployment has been brought into question.
Nevertheless, in future blog posts I will provide more information about my sources when possible in order to let readers make up their own minds. Sometimes, however, because of the sensitivity of the work and to protect the physical safety of some sources in places like Lebanon, that is not always possible.
Let me briefly mention some of my sources in Lebanon: extremely reliable men and women, who also enabled me to gain access to members of parliament, mayors and other municipal leaders, the grandson of a late president of Lebanon, one of the highest-ranking (perhaps the highest-ranking) Muslim clerics in Beirut, multiple high-ranking military and intelligence officers, the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, the head of the national police, and the special forces and counterterrorist strike force commanders. And not all of those defense types were friendly with my civilian sources, and many of my sources had no idea I was talking with the others. It is truly — as one top counterterrorism expert here in the states told me recently — a "wild place."
Speaking of wild, my detractors have claimed that my “public cowboying” — writing openly about carrying weapons, photographing Hezbollah facilities and stealing flags from Hezbollah strongholds — has endangered all reporters in Lebanon. They argue that Hezbollah fighters might assume, based on my reports, that any Western reporter could be armed and hostile to their interests.
Frankly, I'm not concerned with what Hezbollah assumes. Hezbollah is a terrorist organization, funded, trained, and equipped by the Islamic (Iranian) Revolutionary Guard Corps. My responsibility is not to concern myself with how Hezbollah perceives me, nor do I feel any compulsion to court them. They are the enemy as far as I’m concerned. My responsibility is to deliver the facts to my readers, which I have always done and will always do.
Now, am I a “cowboy?” Perhaps I am bit of a cowboy. I did, after all, snag a Hezbollah flag while I was there. Was that Thomas the journalist snagging the flag? Hardly. That was Thomas the Marine. And that's part of who I am, which I suppose makes me part cowboy. But that’s something my detractors will just to have to live with, because that’s not going to change.
I am opinionated: Probably more so these days than ever. But would I ever suggest that my opinion is fact? Hardly. That’s the part of me that is a journalist — the part that compels me to back up facts with sources in columns or articles. Though I haven’t always listed sources when blogging about what I’m seeing, hearing or experiencing at the moment, I’ll try to be more careful to do that in the future, to make available facts and impressions as crystal clear and as in context as they can be.
I assure anyone reading me that I am constantly verifying, never assuming, often distrusting — not because I’m a good guy, but because I owe that to my readers, and because my honesty — no matter my opinion — will always protect me.
Editor’s note: Please see this note.
11/30 04:40 PMShare