At 9:52 p.m. on the evening of Aug. 6, Michael Goldfarb, the online editor of The Weekly Standard, struck gold.
He’d been hammering away at political rival and fellow beltway-cognoscenti handbook The New Republic for a series of reports run by an anonymous soldier serving in Iraq, who until recently had been known only by the pen name Scott Thomas.
The stories Scott Thomas told were almost too bad to be true.
There was the Iraqi boy whose tongue is cut out for talking to Americans; the dog eating a corpse lying in the street; the troops mocking and sexually harassing a woman whose face had been damaged by an I.E.D.; and the soldier who wore a part of an Iraqi boy’s skull under his helmet.
And on July 18 he said so, asking other military bloggers to check out the stories of the anonymous columnist and find out whether they were true.
“Is it possible that American soldiers would be so sadistic?” Mr. Goldfarb asked rhetorically, referring to the mocking of the I.E.D. victim and then, in turn, to each of the stories told in TNR’s “Baghdad Diarist” column.
Soon, the right-wing blogosphere had taken up the cause. Bloggers exploded with rage that an anonymous soldier might be telling tall tales that maligned the dignity of American troops serving in Iraq. Only, it was not completely clear where the doubts were coming from initially—other troops found the stories implausible and wrote in to Mr. Goldfarb and others to say so; to many, the stories were simply too upsetting to be possible.
On Aug. 2, TNR issued a statement—based on an internal investigation—claiming the magazine had corroborated most of their correspondent’s account. A week earlier, the editors had identified him as Pvt. Scott Thomas Beauchamp.
They did, however, find one serious error. The burned woman described in one of the pieces was indeed mocked in the way Pvt. Beauchamp had described, but the incident took place while she was stationed in Kuwait—before Mr. Beauchamp had been in the country.
The statement released by The New Republic was therefore hardly a triumphant vindication of their writer. But there was some detail about how the magazine had investigated Mr. Beauchamp’s story.
“In this process, TNR contacted dozens of people,” their statement read. “Editors and staffers spoke numerous times with Beauchamp. We also spoke with current and former soldiers, forensic experts, and other journalists who have covered the war extensively. And we sought assistance from Army Public Affairs officers. Most important, we spoke with five other members of Beauchamp’s company, and all corroborated Beauchamp’s anecdotes, which they witnessed or, in the case of one solider, heard about contemporaneously. (All of the soldiers we interviewed who had firsthand knowledge of the episodes requested anonymity.)”
A TNR source confirmed to The Observer that the “re-reporting” project wasn’t just for junior fact-checkers but senior staff, including senior editors Jason Zengerle, Lawrence Kaplan and Michael Crowley—and even former senior editor Ryan Lizza, who officially left the magazine, but had not yet started his new gig at The New Yorker.
But Mr. Goldfarb and his colleagues were not to let go that easily, and on August 6 he seemed to get his reward.
“An investigation has been completed and the allegations made by Pvt. Beauchamp were found to be false,” Major Steven F. Lamb, the deputy Public Affairs Officer for Multi National Division-Baghdad wrote in a statement that he released to Mr. Goldfarb. “His platoon and company were interviewed and no one could substantiate the claims.”
What’s more, Mr. Goldfarb confidently pronounced that Pvt. Beauchamp himself had signed statements recanting the stories he had written for TNR, attributing the news break to an anonymous source.
Pvt. Beauchamp, he claimed, “signed a sworn statement admitting that all three articles he published in the New Republic were exaggerations and falsehoods—fabrications containing only ‘a smidgen of truth’…”
TNR? What do you have to say to that?
“We’ve talked to military personnel directly involved in the events that Scott Thomas Beauchamp described, and they corroborated his account as detailed in our statement. When we called Army spokesman Major Steven F. Lamb and asked about an anonymously sourced allegation that Beauchamp had recanted his articles in a sworn statement, he told us, “I have no knowledge of that.” He added, “If someone is speaking anonymously [to The Weekly Standard], they are on their own.” When we pressed Lamb for details on the Army investigation, he told us, “We don’t go into the details of how we conduct our investigations.”
So who is telling the truth? Who is lying? Is it Pvt. Beauchamp, the soldier with the harrowing stories? The anonymous source speaking to the eager Mr. Goldfarb? The soldiers who told army officials they knew Pvt. Beauchamp’s stories to be false?
“Without any knowledge of the military’s investigation, it becomes hard to know what to do with the statement they put out,” said Franklin Foer, editor of The New Republic, by phone on August 7.
And without knowing who Mr. Goldfarb’s anonymous source is, it’s hard to figure out the basis for the claim Pvt. Beauchamp has actually recanted his story.
Mr. Beauchamp had, however, told The New Republic that “he had signed statements, but the statements he signed were consistent with the pieces he wrote for The New Republic.”
“All I can tell you is that I don’t believe Beauchamp is standing by the story,” said Mr. Goldfarb, reached by phone on August 7.
“First of all, it’s my understanding that the investigation has concluded,” Mr. Goldfarb said, “and Beauchamp has access to a phone.”
He added that the military has “proven the allegations false.”
Mr. Foer, who’s currently on paternity leave, said by phone that he was “not sure why [Mr. Goldfarb’s] source would need to be anonymous.”
“The people who corroborated Scott’s story all feared punishment, or were worried about the repercussions of going on the record,” Mr. Foer said.
“It was reported as if what the anonymous source said was fact,” Mr. Foer said.
So how can this end? Either the army has to provide enough details to TNR to prove there are inaccuracies, or Mr. Beauchamp has to come forward publicly. And Maj. Lamb could not be reached for comment.
Mr. Foer said that he has not talked to Mr. Beauchamp since TNR concluded its investigation, but he said the soldier has been in contact with his wife, TNR reporter-researcher Elspeth Reeve, once since then.
Mr. Goldfarb, until he hears otherwise, remains unconvinced.
“I don’t understand how a magazine can stand behind the story when the author doesn’t,” Mr. Goldfarb said.