Since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the U.S. government has spent nearly $500 million on an Arabic language television and radio station.
Now an investigation finds that the project has not only been poorly run and hemorrhaged taxpayer money but is also airing bizarrely anti-American and anti-semitic coverage despite repeated complaints from the State Department and Congress.
ProPublica, in a joint investigation with 60 Minutes, finds that the al-Hurra network — “the Free One” in Arabic — has completely failed in its initial mission to counter the influence of the Qatar-based al-Jazeera news network in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East.
For starters, there are problems with the staff, which often does not have any Arabic language skills or a background in broadcast journalism:
Alhurra’s president, Brian Conniff, does not speak Arabic and is unable to understand anything broadcast on the radio and television networks he is paid to manage. Conniff has no journalism experience and worked previously as a government auditor. His news director, Daniel Nassif, grew up in Lebanon and has no background in television. Before coming to the network, he helped promote the political aspirations in Washington of a Lebanese Christian former general.
Then there is the accounting, which has failed to track millions in taxpayer dollars:
Financial accountability also appears to be lacking. In its four years, the network has been unable to provide full documentation to auditors to account for its spending, according to two people familiar with the records and a 2006 report by the Government Accountability Office.
(The GAO report is here.)
Meanwhile, the station may have been doing more harm that good for America’s image in the Middle East. Along with the story, ProPublica also publishes a series of documents showing the complaints about al-Hurra filtering into the State Department and Congress in recent years.One incident that seems to summarize the station’s problems came when a reporter last year provided credulous coverage of a Holocaust deniers’ conference in Tehran. “The reporter who covered the conference told viewers that Jews had provided no scientific evidence of the Holocaust,” ProPublica reports.
As word of this report got back to Washington, Congress demanded that the station fire the reporter, Ahmad Amin. Top executives assured lawmakers that he was gone. But the ProPublica investigation found that Amin remained on staff until just a few weeks ago.
There’s also evidence that the station was exacerbating the sectarian tensions in Iraq last year as death squads roamed the streets of Baghdad and American troop casualties reached their peak:
Alberto Fernandez, an Arabic speaker who served as the top public diplomacy officer for the Middle East until recently, wrote [Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy Karen] Hughes in May 2007 that Alhurra’s Baghdad operation was stocked “with radical Shi’a Islamists who favored their political brethren and discriminated against and intimidated members of other parties … especially during the Iraqi electoral season.”
Beyond Iraq, anti-American sentiments were given prominent voice:
When Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah railed against the U.S. government and threatened Israel, Alhurra carried it live and unedited. When U.S. combat deaths in Iraq surpassed 4,000 in March, Radio Sawa interviewed an anonymous militant who told listeners: “Occupation is occupation. We need to resist them and kill more than 4,000.” In March, Alhurra aired a documentary on the “The Crusades” — a series of military campaigns that Christian Europe waged against the Muslim world during the Middle Ages. Muslim staffers saw the program as an unfortunate reprise of Bush’s 2001 comment that the coming “war on terrorism,” would be a “crusade.”
The Washington Post also has a story about al-Hurra in today’s paper that comes to a similar conclusion about the station’s success.
James Martone, a former CNN Middle East correspondent, was hired by al-Hurra as a producer in early 2007. Fluent in Arabic, he acted as an unofficial watchdog, cataloguing errors and reporting them to senior management. He said he had to teach many al-Hurra staffers the basics of what they could or could not say on the air.
“There were a lot of people working for the organization who weren’t really journalists,” said Martone, who resigned after several months. “When I started pointing out what was actually on the air, it became my full-time job. . . . The people upstairs, the Americans, I don’t think they knew what was going on.”
Late Update: Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) fired off a letter this morning asking that House foreign relations committee Chairman Howard Berman (D-CA) “hold immediate oversight hearings and initiate an investigation” of al-Hurra.