July 07, 2004

Craig Unger: How Many Mistakes Can Newsweek's Michael Isikoff Make?

Even now, and especially now...It's the Media, Stupid.

Craig Unger, www.houseofbush.com: How many mistakes
can Michael Isikoff make? In his zealous campaign to
discredit Fahrenheit 9/11, Newsweek's star
investigative reporter has already made at least seven
errors, distortions and selective omissions of crucial
Perhaps we will never know the answers to all these
questions. But American journalists have a
responsiblity to try to uncover the facts rather than
muddy the waters-- and that includes Michael Isikoff.

Break the Bush Cabal Stranglehold on the "US
Mainstream News Media," Show Up for Democracy in 2004:
Defeat Bush (again!)


July 3, 2004 The Newsweek-Fahrenheit Wars, Part 3

How Many Mistakes Can Newsweek's Michael Isikoff Make?
by Craig Unger

How many mistakes can Michael Isikoff make? In his
zealous campaign to discredit Fahrenheit 9/11,
Newsweek's star investigative reporter has already
made at least seven errors, distortions and selective
omissions of crucial information.

Let's take them one by one.

1) In his first Newsweek piece attacking the movie,
"Under the Hot Lights," which appeared in the June 28
issue of the magazine, Isikoff asserts that I claim
"that bin Laden family members were never interviewed
by the FBI." Isikoff proceeds to attack me for that
claim. Unfortunately for him, I never made it.
Isikoff's assertion is a complete fabrication.

2) The same article also erroneously reports that the
Saudi evacuation "flights didn't begin until Sept.
14—after airspace reopened." As House of Bush, House
of Saud notes, however, the first flight actually took
place a day earlier, on September 13, when
restrictions on private planes were still in place.
Isikoff knew this. I even gave him the names of two
men who were on that flight-- Dan Grossi and Manuel
Perez-- and told him how to get in touch with them.
Earlier, Jean Heller, a reporter for the St.
Petersburg Times, took the time to follow up on my
reporting(see article below). She called Grossi, and
in her subsequent article wrote, "Grossi did say that
Unger's account of his participation in the flight is

Rather than try to refute or corroborate my reporting,
however, Isikoff omitted it entirely. The facts
interfered with his argument.

It is worth noting that Jean Heller was also able to
obtain verification of the September 13 flight from
other sources as well. Heller reports that the flight
from Tampa, Florida to Lexington, Kentucky, has
finally been corroborated by authorities at Tampa
International Airport--even though the White House,
the FBI and the FBI repeatedly denied that any such
flights took place.

3) A week after "Under the Hot Lights" appeared,
Newsweek apologized for fabrication number one in its
print edition of the magazine. But the error remains
uncorrected online where it continues to be
desseminated by other media.

Worse, in its "apology," Newsweek amplified the
distortion it made the previous week. This time, the
magazine admits that the September 13 flight did take
place. But the editors again omit crucial information
in order to suggest that the flight is a red herring,
asserting that the flight "took off late on Sept. 13
after restrictions on flying had already been lifted,"
Newsweek says.

In fact, some restrictions had been lifted--but not
all. Commercial aviation slowly resumed on September
13, but at 10:57 am that day, the Federal Aviation
Administration issued a Notice to Airmen stating that
private aviation was still banned. Three planes
violated that order and were forced down by American
military aircraft that day. (See House of Bush, House
of Saud, p. 9) Yet the Saudis were allowed to fly on
the ten passenger Learjet. Far from being irrelevant,
the Tampa to Lexington flight is vital because it
required permission from the highest levels of our
government. Once again, all this information is in the
book, and Isikoff told me he had read it. This
relevant information contradicted Isikoff's thesis.

If you think about it, Isikoff's argument defies
logic. Hundreds of thousands of planes fly each day.
If the Tampa to Lexington flight was just another
normal flight, why would anyone go to a
crisis-stricken White House to get permission for the
Saudis to fly? Yet thanks to Richard Clarke's
testimony before the 9/11 Commission, we know that the
White House did grant permission for the Saudis to

4) On June 30, Isikoff was at it again, this time in
an online story co-written with Mark Hosenball, "More
Distortions from Michael Moore." (link).

If the basics of journalism are important to you, it
is worth pointing out that Isikoff's story confuses
Carlyle founding partner David Rubenstein with public
relations legend Howard Rubenstein. This is just one
of three names(William Kennard and Caterair are the
others) Isikoff gets wrong in the story. (The article
has since been corrected online.)

5)More to the point, Isikoff's chief target is the
movie's assertion that $1.4 billion in Saudi funds
went to businesses tied to the Bushes and their
friends. As Isikoff notes, House of Bush, House of
Saud is the chief source for this information.

Most of this figure comes from defense contracts to
companies owned by the Carlyle Group in the
mid-nineties, and according to Isikoff, therein lies
the problem. “The movie clearly implies that the
Saudis gave $1.4 billion to the Bushes and their
friends,” Carlyle public relations executive Chris
Ullman tells Newsweek. “ But most of it went to a
Carlyle Group company before [former president George
H.W.] Bush even joined the firm.”

Isikoff accepts Ullman's explanation almost
uncritically, leaving the reader with the impression
that the Bush family and its allies had little or no
relationship with the Carlyle Group until 1998. If
that were true, he might have a point.

But in fact, the Bush-Carlyle relationship began eight
years earlier when the Carlyle Group put George W.
Bush on the board of one of its subsidiaries,
Caterair, in 1990. In 1993, after the Bush-Quayle
administration left office and George H. W. Bush and
James Baker were free to join the private sector, the
Bush family's relationship with the Carlyle Group
began to become substantive.

By the end of that year, key figures at the Carlyle
Group included such powerful Bush colleagues as James
Baker, Frank Carlucci, and Richard Darman. Because
George W. Bush's role at Carlyle had been marginal,
the $1.4 billion figure includes no contracts that
predated the arrival of Baker, Carlucci and Darman at
Carlyle. (These figures are itemized in the appendix
of House of Bush.) With former Secretary of Defense
Carlucci guiding the acquisition of defense companies,
Carlyle finally began making real money from the
Saudis, both through investments from the royal
family, the bin Ladens and other members of the Saudi
elite, and through lucrative defense investments.

6) In addition, Isikoff erroneously dismisses the
relationship between the Bushes and the House of Saud
at the Carlyle Group as a distant one. "Six degrees of
separation" is the term he uses. Yet according to a
December 4, 2003 email from Carlyle's Chris Ullman,
James Baker and George H. W. Bush made a four trips to
Saudi Arabia on Carlyle's behalf, and that does not
include meetings they had with Saudis that took place
in the U.S. During the course of these trips, Ullman
says, former president Bush sometimes met privately
with members of the Saudi Binladen Group. At times,
Carlyle officials have characterized these meetings as
"ceremonial." But in fact, at least $80 million in
investments came from the House of Saud and allies
such as the bin Laden family. It would be unseemly--
and unnecessary-- for former president Bush or James
Baker to actually ask for money from the Saudis at
such meetings. Instead, David Rubenstein's team did
that after Bush and Baker spoke. For a more complete
account of this, see Chapter Ten in House of Bush,
House of Saud.

7) In the same article, Isikoff tries to pit me
against Michael Moore by asserting that my book,
unlike the movie, concludes that the role of James
Bath, a Texas businessman who represented Saudis and
was close to George W. Bush, was not terribly
significant. Isikoff writes, "The movie—which relied
heavily on Unger’s book—fails to note the author’s
conclusion about what to make of the supposed Bin
Laden-Bath-Bush nexus: that it may not mean anything."

Isikoff is wrong again. It is true that no conclusive
evidence has yet answered the specific question of
whether or not bin Laden money actually went from the
bin Ladens to Bath and then into George W. Bush's
first oil company, Arbusto. But beyond that unresolved
issue, the bin Laden-Bath-Bush nexus is crucial to the
birth of the Bush-Saudi relationship. Even if bin
Laden money did not go into Arbusto, Bath introduced
Salem bin Laden and his good friend Khalid bin Mahfouz
to Texas. A host of contacts between them and the
House of Bush ensued. Bin Mahfouz shared financial
interests with James Baker. His associates bailed out
Harken Energy, where George W. Bush made his first
fortune. Money from both the bin Ladens and the bin
Mahfouzes ended up in Carlyle. This relationship is
what House of Bush is about. Isikoff cherry-picks
information that suits his agenda and leaves out the

In his assault against Fahrenheit, Isikoff does raise
one provocative question, one that many other people
have asked. If the Saudi evacuation flights are so
wrong, how is it that former counterterrorism czar
Richard Clarke, a fierce critic of the Bush White
House, has not had any problems with them. "I thought
the flights were correct,” Clarke said. “The Saudis
had reasonable fear that they might be the subject of
vigilante attacks in the United States after 9/11. And
there is no evidence even to this date that any of the
people who left on those flights were people of
interest to the FBI.”

It is a fair question and it deserves a serious

If there is a hero in House of Bush, it is Richard
Clarke, a man who understood Al-Qaeda's new
transnational form of terrorism and developed a
forceful strategy against it, but who was thwarted in
both the Clinton Administration(thanks to the Lewinsky
scandal) and in the Bush administration(by being left
out of the loop in the Bush).

But Clarke is also a brilliant and savvy bureaucrat
who is unlikely to characterize decisions in which he
played a role as stupid or wrong. And much as I admire
him, I disagre with him on this issue.

When first interviewed on this subject in 2003, Clarke
said that his approval for evacuating the Saudis had
been conditional on the FBI’ s vetting them. “I asked
[the F.B.I.] to make sure that no one inappropriate
was leaving. I asked them if they had any objection to
Saudis leaving the country at a time when aircraft
were banned from flying.” He noted that he assumed the
F.B.I. had vetted the bin Ladens prior to September

Then he added, “I have no idea if they did a good job.
I'm not in any position to second guess the FBI.”

And there's the rub. Given the long history of errors
made by the FBI in investigating counterterrorism, how
can one possibly accept their infallibility as
unquestioningly as Isikoff does. I interviewed two FBI
agents who participated in the Saudi evacuation and
they made it clear that they did not subject the
passengers to a formal criminal investigation. One
rather astonishing finding of the 9/11 Commission is
that though the rubble was still very much ablaze at
the World Trade Center a few days after the attacks,
the FBI did not even bother to check the Saudi
passenger lists against its terror watch lists.

There are many other unanswered questions. "It is
clear that the Saudi charities were being used as
cover for Al Qaeda, but it is unclear how far up the
chain of authority that went," Clarke said. Do we know
for certain none of the Saudis on the flights could
have shed light on that crucial question? Were any of
them tied to the charities in question? Did any of
them have any information on bin Laden? Did we let a
treasure trove of intelligence leave?

Finally, it is still unclear whether other people in
the White House had knowledge. Do the president and
his men bear no responsibility for leading a thorough
criminal investigation into the worst crime in in
American history?

Perhaps we will never know the answers to all these
questions. But American journalists have a
responsiblity to try to uncover the facts rather than
muddy the waters-- and that includes Michael Isikoff.

Posted by richard at July 7, 2004 03:30 PM