The embarrassing flap resulting from the 60 Minutes report on Benghazi—broadcasting a sensational interview with a security officer, Dylan Davies, an apparently totally trustworthy, convincing source, who later turned out to be a con artist--makes me shudder.
I recall the number of times during my thirty years as a producer with 60 Minutes when I only narrowly missed being caught in the same kind of devastating, career-shattering trap.
But first, what does it mean to be a producer at 60 Minutes? Each report on the show has “produced by” written on the art work introducing it, but most viewers have no clue what “produced by” really entails.
Indeed, the great irony of 60 Minutes is a question of truth in
packaging. That is, 60 Minutes, which prides itself on ruthless truth telling, exposing cant and fraud, is in itself, something of a charade.
The fact is that, although the viewers tune in to watch the on-going exploits of Lara, Morley, Bob, etc. etc., most of the intrepid reporting, writing, and even many of the most probing questions posed in the interviews, are not the handiwork of the stars, but much more the effort of teams of producers. associate producers, and researchers--who actually sift through and report the stories that the stars present--as their own exploits--each Sunday night.
The stars who pull down the seven figure salaries. But, it’s the producers and their assistants who are, far more than the stars, also responsible for checking out the veracity of those reports.
That’s a daunting task. Most investigative reports on 60 Minutes (or anywhere else) are usually told in terms of black and white, the bad guys vs. the good guys. The problem is most of life is played out in shades of grey. When you start digging into any supposed scandal you usually find that the bad guy is not all that bad; the good guy not all that good, and often the supposed villain is not really a villain at all. Or, as the former City Editor of the old Chicago Herald American, Harry Romanoff, famously said, “If you dig deep enough, any story collapses.”
Usually producers and correspondents recognize when they arrive at that point, and drop the project. But not always. Particularly when the devastating revelation occurs after you have already committed several weeks and tens of thousands of dollars to a report. It’s then that blowing the whistle is most painful, and the temptation to continue, in spite of what you have uncovered, the greatest. In addition to that is the constant pressure to be turning out "sensational pieces"; the rivalry, not just with other news shows, but, even more pronounced, among the producers and correspondents of 60 Minutes themselves.
There’s plenty of ammunition for error. Every week, scores of people write and call 60 Minutes about some incredible expose just waiting to be unearthed. They supply reams of documents, which, they claim, prove their cases, and convincing explanations about why such and such newspaper or congressman refused to follow up on their leads and trumpet the shocking truth.
The more questions you ask, the more convoluted their answers become. But you never know when one of them will pan out. So you never stop listening, studying their evidence, hoping that one of them will turn into something electrifying.
Some of them, like Dylan Davies, the focus of 60 Minutes’ Benghazi report, also have books to peddle.
That’s what happened in 1982. when I was in New York, researching a report about a particularly brutal Communist regime. We heard that a former top official from the secret police of that country, who had defected to the U.S., was writing his memoirs. I immediately contacted him. He showed up the next day in Mike Wallace’s office with page proofs of the book--plus the female CIA agent who had helped debrief him when he first arrived in the States.
The debriefing had obviously gone well. They’d married and she’d help him write his account. (This, don’t forget, was almost thirty years before Homeland!)
That same week a news story broke about two black U.S. Marine sergeants who, the government claimed, had let two Russian girls they were dating, into the U.S. Embassy in Moscow after hours. The government threw the book at both men, claiming they’d compromised Embassy security.
“You know,” the Communist defector in Mike’s office told me, “what happened in Moscow is nothing. In our country, the U.S. Ambassador’s wife was having an affair with the embassy driver.” The driver, like all nationals working for the embassy, was a member of that country’s secret police.
According to the defector, the Ambassador’s wife had actually enabled the chauffeur to plant bugs in the Embassy and the official residence, and had also provided him with a list of local C.I.A. operatives. Driven by an insatiable penchant for pornography, the Communist ruler of that country had ordered his secret police to film the couplings of the driver and wife, for his private amusement.
That, said the defector, was just for starters. When he arrived in the U.S., he immediately told all this to his C.I.A. and FBI debriefers, warning them that the Ambassador now represented a major security threat to the U.S. His wife’s actions left him wide-open to blackmail. Despite that, the Ambassador was reappointed to serve in another key country. He was, in fact, still there.
Forget the story we were working on. This was a hell of a better tale! Here was the U.S. Government throwing the book at two black Marines for their sexual peccadilloes in Moscow. At the same time, the government learns that the wife of the U.S. Ambassador in another country committed high treason, and it does absolutely nothing. Worse. The Ambassador was actually reassigned to another important posting. The Old Boy network in the State Department had obviously swung into action, taking care of their own, burying the charges against the Ambassador in order not to sully his career.
And all of this was recounted by an apparently unimpeachable source. Of course, he could have invented the tale in order to push his book, but he was one of the top Communist officials to have ever defected. And his account was confirmed by one of his C.I.A. debriefers—his current wife. Sure, the tale was salacious. Sure, by broadcasting it we would be destroying the career of a distinguished U.S. diplomat. But it was an important report, that that had to get out.
In fact, we had dined with the Ambassador and his wife just a few months earlier in the country where they were currently stationed. They were both intelligent, charming, highly respected individuals. But who was worried about the careers and ruined lives of the two black Marines in Moscow? Fed by leads by the government prosecutors, the media had been all over that story. The potential damage done by the Ambassador’s wife was far graver. The defector’s tale also bared the hypocrisy of the U.S. Government. The report, of course, would be a first-class journalistic scoop. It had ‘awards’ written all over it.
Which didn’t prevent us from feeling like a couple of sweaty reporters from the National Inquirer when Mike Wallace and I phoned the Ambassador at his Embassy half the world away. Mike told him we’d just spoken with the Communist defector.
“You have?” said the Ambassador.
“Yes, and he told us about your wife and the embassy driver.”
At that point, we were expecting at least an attempt at denial. There was none.
“He told you about it? Said the Ambassador.
“What are you going to do about it?”
“Well. We have no choice but to go ahead with the report,” said Mike. “Would you be willing to do an interview?”
Obviously taken aback, the Ambassador said he would have to talk to his wife. They would probably have to fly back to the U.S. to tell their children. His tone was forlorn. He seemed to be admitting all.
We called the State Department for comment. “Mike, this is not a solid story,” a top official told us—but refused to give any specifics. He could only divulge that the situation was not what we had been led to believe. We persisted. Didn’t the wife have an affair with the driver? The official insisted he couldn’t go any further. “All I can say is that the story isn’t there. Believe me.”
Despite the apparent sincerity of the denial, there was no way we could accept it at face value, without any substantiation. So, we continued our report, taping interviews in Washington. One. with a key figure on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; the other, with a former National Security Advisor to the President. They had both routinely okayed the Ambassador’s appointment. They were stunned when we told them what we had learned about the Ambassador’s wife. No government agency had briefed them about the defector’s claims. If they had known, they assured us, there was no way the Ambassador would have been reappointed.
We had a dynamite story. I edited it to twenty-five minutes, almost twice as long as the average 60 Minutes report. Because of the sensitive subject, Howard Stringer, then CBS News president, also viewed it. There was nothing but praise for the segment. It would be broadcast the coming Sunday.
But Mike Wallace and myself continued feeling queasy about what we had wrought. I had morbid premonitions of the ambassador and his wife, rather than facing public dishonor, committing suicide before our broadcast.
Once again, we called the top-ranking State Department official who had originally challenged our story. He maintained ever more vehemently that we had it all wrong. But how could we have had it all wrong? The only answer that made sense would be if the Communist defector had not told the U.S. government what he now was telling us.
We put that to the State Department official. He said he would take a look at the notes from the defector’s debriefing. On Saturday, he called back to Mike’s office where we were just putting the finishing touches on the report, which was to be aired the next day. The defector, he claimed, had indeed told U.S. intelligence that the Ambassador’s wife was having an affair with the driver, but he had never alleged that it went beyond a sexual tryst. She had never enabled the chauffeur to plant a bug in the Embassy, nor had she turned over the names of any CIA agents.
And, prior to the Ambassador’s reassignment, he and his wife and top State Department figures had frankly discussed the whole matter, so there would be no threat of blackmail. But the State Department official still refused to let us see the debriefing reports. Impossible. Much too sensitive. We would have to take his word.
What to do? Once again, Mike called the defector at the “safe house” the government had provided him in Virginia. “Are you sure,” Mike asked him, “that you gave the U.S. government the whole story when you came out? Did you tell them about the bugs being planted? The list of CI.A. agents? We’ve spoken with someone who has seen your debriefing. They say flatly that you did not.”
The defector, who up till then had always sounded totally assured, hesitated. “Well..uh…maybe I didn’t tell his debriefers about it when I first came out.”
“When did you tell them?” Mike persisted.
“Well, I’m not exactly sure.”
Mike and I looked at each other. We pulled the report. In hindsight, we might have gone ahead. After all, the story about his wife having had an affair, was apparently true. And, though the State Department knew about it, officials in Washington responsible for okaying his Ambassadorial appointment, were never told. But, that tale paled beside the riveting scandal we had originally set out to reveal.
Our report was never broadcast. But reverberations from the interviews we had done in Washington rippled across the capitol. Monday morning, the Washington Post ran an article about the status of the case against the two black Marines, and then made references to other similar security breaches, including the amorous adventures of the wife of an unnamed American Ambassador. A few years later, at the end of his assignment, the Ambassador resigned from the department.
As for the defector, he never published his book. But for years afterwards, he continued to feed intriguing tales to reporters in the U.S. and Canada, looking for scoops.
Who knows? Some of them might have been true.
Barry Lando has recently written a novel, "The Watchman’s File", about Israel’s most closely-guarded secret (it’s not the bomb). Available in soft-cover and Kindle version on Amazon.