CBS News Poaches Narco News’ Drug War Coverage
Network Producer Also Concedes “Some Bloggers Were Out Ahead of Us” on the Fast and Furious Story But Were Given No Credit
Taking a poke at the mainstream media is old hat in the new age of dispersed media access, but the mechanizations of some old-world information clowns are still worth illuminating from time to time, particularly when they involve pilfering unapologetically work done by the independent press.
In the spotlight on that front for this expose is CBS News, part of CBS Corp.’s “Entertainment business segment,” which accounts for some 53 percent of the parent company’s annual revenue of $14 billion, according to filings with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.
You would think with that kind of pecuniary clout, the employees of CBS News would have no need to lift and repurpose deep reporting unabashedly, without credit, from independent journalists, who are invariably underpaid — if at all. But, in this case, and in my experience with many other interactions with network TV honks, the evidence of such behavior in play seems rather convincing.
The story in question relates to arms trafficking between the United States and Mexico, legal gun running in this case as part of a U.S. State Department program known as Direct Commercial Sales (DCS) — through which U.S. companies are approved to sell arms to Mexico, via the Mexican military. Given the situation in Mexico with the drug war, and the extent of the corruption within the government there, including its military, the DCS program appears to be a direct conduit for weapons transfers that empower narco-trafficking organizations.
At least that’s the nature of the story that Narco News broke in early 2009, and continued to follow through this year, with three additional story updates following the original scoop — which carried the headline “Legal U.S. Arms Exports May Be source of Narco Syndicates Rising Firepower.”
In early December of this year, nearly three years after Narco News published its initial story on the DCS program, CBS News, via its well-marketed “Investigative Unit” (which takes credit for exposing the Fast and Furious ATF scandal story) published a story with a headline curiously similar to the one gracing the March 2009 Narco News story. The CBS story headline: “Legal U.S. gun sales to Mexico arming cartels.”
You have to wonder how the award-winning news network, backed by a multi-billion-dollar revenue stream, finally came to the decision to “investigate” the DCS weapons-diversion story.
Some insight is now coming your way. The back story, with email correspondence as proof, will now be laid out for you, kind readers, so that you can decide whether this “distinguished” pillar of the mainstream media, the former home of “the most trusted man in America,” anchorman Walter Cronkite, has now turned to appropriating the reporting work of others.
An email was sent to me on Oct. 19, prior to the Dec. 6 publication of the CBS version of the Narco News DCS coverage, by a CBS Investigative Unit assistant, who was making an inquiry on behalf of Producer Chris Scholl.
Subject: Inquiry into details regarding Dos/DCS article
I am working with CBS producer Chris Scholl on the arms dealing/drug cartels/US Govt story and have some questions regarding an article you recently sent him. The article was titled “Private-sector Arms Sales to Mexico Sparsely Monitored by State Department” and was posted on Apr 5, 2009.
In the article you write, “According to an analysis of the DCS reports, some $1 billion in defense hardware was approved for export to Mexico”.
I am wondering what specifically this DCS analysis is and where I could find it. Is it at all related to the Javits report? Any information you have would be useful.
If you are able, you may call me today or tomorrow at 202. 457. 1545, or email me back at this contact at anytime.
CBS News Investigative Unit
I replied via email to Ms. Powell, also ccing CBS producer Scholl, indicating that I had never sent CBS News any of my stories. “I suspect you got the story from one of my sources or a reader,” I wrote.
As it turns out, I was on the money. CBS News had been in contact with one of my long-time sources, Tosh Plumlee, a former CIA contract pilot who is still very much in the thick of things along the U.S./Mexico border in terms of intelligence gathering. Plumlee, as a citizen who is not a journalist, has every right to talk with other media with information he deems important. That is not the problem here.
Rather, it is how CBS handled that information, which in this case included Plumlee’s decision, after being contacted first by CBS, he confirms, to inform CBS producer Scholl about the DCS connection to arms trafficking — including his decision to send Chris Scholl a link to the April 2009 Narco News story.
As an example of how in the dark Scholl was about the DCS program, its worth examining some excerpts from emails he sent to Plumlee, who agreed to share the correspondence, which was not off-the-record, with Narco News:
From an Oct. 5 email sent by Scholl to Plumlee, about two weeks prior to the email CBS sent to me:
Robert [Plumlee] thanks.
... As for preponderence of evidence stories, I do believe we can do that — assuming we can gather enough that qualifies as a "preponderence". We are not in a court of law and reporters do not have to meet the legal standard of beyond a reasonable doubt. But if we're building a story around circumstantial facts, then we try to be doubly vigilant about vetting them and explaining them to the public.... Did you see my question about the Direct Commercial Sales program? Any thought on that? And don't you have to be a country (rather than a company) in order to participate in that?
In fact, as Narco News’ coverage has pointed out, the DCS program involves private companies exporting weapons to Mexico and other countries after receiving State Department approval.
And from yet another email sent to Plumlee by Scholl on the same date:
… I am really interested in the Direct Commercial Sales program but haven't seen yet how to obtain data on specific sales without filing a FOIA (an obviously ineffective method). I haven't looked into it too hard yet, but do you know offhand how I can do it? [In fact, as Narco News’ coverage points out, the DCS data is easily found via a State Department Web site, and the reports were included in Narco News’ coverage via links in the stories.]
And yes...I had previously read Conroy's stuff on Zambada [a leader of the Sinaloa “Cartel” currently facing drug charges in Chicago]. There was a new court filing in that case yesterday by the government, by the way, some pretty interesting admissions! [An admission that Scholl himself reads Narco News.]
CBS EVENING NEWS
2020 M Street NW
Washington, DC 20036
So, we see that Scholl, a lead producer for the CBS “Investigative Unit,” was turned on to the DCS story, in no small degree, by Plumlee, who also shared Web links to Narco News’ coverage with him. And we see that Scholl was quite ignorant of how the DCS program works, which appears to have resulted in one of his underlings, Andrea Powell, sending me an email on Oct. 19 seeking specifics on how to dig up the background data on the DCS program.
Below is an excerpt of my reply, also on Oct. 19, to Powell’s email — a copy of which also was directed to CBS Producer Scholl:
I sent you no article. I suspect you got the story from one of my sources or a reader.
But my work is freely available on the Internet as a public service with links within my stories to all the public records cited, including the DCS report you are seeking, so I have no problem sharing the information with you.
In addition to the story you reference in your email to me, Narco News has published at least three other stories to date on the subject, the latest of which appeared this past April — based, in part, on a State Department cable released by WikiLeaks that verified our past reporting. The links to the other stories and the WikiLeaks cable and the pertinent passage from that cable can be found below and in the attached Word document.
In any event, the report you're looking for is called a “Section 655 Report.” The link below should be your one-stop gold mine, with links to the 655 reports as well as the Blue Lantern End Use Monitoring reports to date, and various other documents. The 655 reports come out annually, so it's wise to check the latest reports for the new numbers. Our last report in April made use of the FY 2009 655 report, the most recent available at that time. The FY 2010 report is now available as well.
It is important here to note that Narco News, in an April 14, 2011, story, covered in-depth yet again the shortcomings in the DCS arms sales program, with special focus on the fact that State Department cables exposed by WikiLeaks verified the U.S. government had been made aware of a troubling weapons-diversion problem. Narco News also made available to readers, via a link in that story, the second of two cables related to a “Blue Lantern” investigation into an alleged case of DCS weapons being diverted to Mexican criminal groups.
And the link to that same Nov. 30, 2009, cable was included in Narco News’ Oct. 19, 2011, email response to CBS’ Powell and Scholl. So both should have been fully aware of Narco News’ coverage of the WikiLeaks cables and of the DCS weapons-diversion issue in general. Narco News' coverage has included a series of four in-depth stories dating back to March 29, 2009.
U.S. copyright law includes a concept known as derivative work, which essentially is a product, such as a story, that is based on one or more preexisting works. The copyright in a derivative work covers only that material contributed by the original author and does not extend to other preexisting material, such as public records.
In the case of journalism, the derivative work concept is a bit opaque, given the underlying reporting and subsequent analysis applied in creating an original work is normally hidden in the background, an art that is part of the process that leads to the end product. So absent blatant plagiarism, which CBS News was careful to avoid, it is difficult to prove definitively that the network’s DCS story was a derivative work based on the underlying Narco News stories, and, in any event, that is not the accusation in this case.
However, readers should consider whether CBS News did cross some ethical lines in terms of fairness to Narco News (and in transparency as it relates to its audience) in the story, authored by CBS News “investigative journalist” Sharyl Attkisson: “Legal U.S. gun sales to Mexico arming cartels.”
Following are some excerpts from Attkisson’s recent DCS weapons-diversion story juxtaposed against Narco News’ DCS coverage (four stories since March 2009, all of which were sent in October to CBS investigative unit producer Scholl and assistant Powell).
1. CBS Story Headline: "Legal U.S. gun sales to Mexico arming cartels" — published Dec. 6, 2011
• Narco News Story Headline: “Legal U.S. Arms Exports May Be Source of Narco Syndicates Rising Firepower” — published March 29, 2009
2.) Narco News Coverage: The dollar value of U.S. private-sector weapons shipments to Mexico [through the DCS program] in fiscal year 2009 exceeded the value of private arms shipments to two other major conflict regions elsewhere in the world, Iraq and Afghanistan, and even outpaced the value of arms shipped to one of the United States’ staunchest allies, Israel. — “U.S.-Backed Programs Supplying the Firepower for Mexico’s Soaring Murder Rate” – April 14, 2011
CBS Story: Yet the U.S. has approved the sale of more guns to Mexico in recent years than ever before through a program called "direct commercial sales."
… Mexico is now one of the world's largest purchasers of U.S. guns through direct commercial sales, beating out countries like Iraq.
3.) Narco News Coverage: And it is that latter scenario that the State Department cable released by WikiLeaks earlier this month reveals is likely the scenario in play. Essentially, the [U.S. State Department] cable establishes state-level government employees [in Mexico], such as the police — many of whom are on the payrolls of narco-trafficking organizations — as the weak link in the DCS chain.
Following are the key passages from the cable [exposed by WikiLeaks], … which reveals that the ultimate destination of an assault weapon [an AR-15] found at a crime scene — one of a batch of more than 1,000 rifles shipped via the DCS [Direct Commercial Sales] program — was the “government” in the Mexican state of Michoacan.
Blue lantern coordinators [who are charged monitoring DCS weapons shipments] requested that Poloff [political officers] investigate the circumstances surrounding the recovery of an U.S. licensed AR-15 rifle from a Mexican crime scene and substantiate the chain of custody from the supplier to the end user…. [Emphasis added.]
... Given the lack of accountability for weapons once they arrive at the state level [in Mexico], U.S. law enforcement agencies have fair reason to worry that a number of weapons simply "disappear.”
— “U.S.-Backed Programs Supplying the Firepower for Mexico’s Soaring Murder Rate” — April 14, 2011
CBS Story: One weapon — an AR-15-type semi-automatic rifle — tells the story. In 2006, this same kind of rifle — tracked by serial number — is legally sold by a U.S. manufacturer to the Mexican military.
Three years later - it's found in a criminal stash in a region wracked by Mexican drug cartel violence.
That prompted a "sensitive" cable, uncovered by WikiLeaks, dated June 4, 2009, in which the U.S. State Department asked Mexico "how the AR-15" — meant only for the military or police — was "diverted" into criminal hands.
And, more importantly, where the other rifles from the same shipment went: "Please account for the current location of the 1,030 AR-15 type rifles," reads the cable.
4.) Narco News Coverage: So our own State Department concedes that the military weapons being shipped to Mexico are filtered through the Mexican military and ample public record indicates that this military has a history of corruption, yet the State Department since 2007 has only conducted [Blue Lantern] end-use monitoring investigations on a paltry three arms-export transactions approved for Mexico through the DCS program — which in fiscal 2007 alone was responsible for shipping more than a quarter billion dollars worth of military hardware to Mexico. Still, we are asked to accept the State Department’s assurance that all is well with the program and there is no record of arms being diverted from the Mexican military to drug trafficking organizations. — “Private-sector Arms Sales to Mexico Sparsely Monitored by State Department” — April 5, 2009
CBS Story: CBS News investigative correspondent Sharyl Attkisson discovered that the official tracking all those guns sold through "direct commercial sales" leaves something to be desired. [Emphasis added.]
... The State Department audits only a tiny sample — less than 1 percent of sales — but the results are disturbing: In 2009, more than a quarter (26 percent) of the guns sold to the region that includes Mexico were "diverted" into the wrong hands, or had other "unfavorable" results.
NOTE: CBS’ math is all wrong. The 26 percent figure represents the percentage of total Blue Lantern cases that earned an “unfavorable” rating [out of 87 total cases] and not 26 percent of all weapons sold into the region.
Of the 649 Blue Lantern cases closed in FY 2009, 87 (13%) were determined to be “unfavorable.” An unfavorable determination means that the Blue Lantern’s findings of fact are not consistent with the information contained in the application or license.
... Here again, the Americas region is noteworthy for representing more than one-fourth (26%) of unfavorable Blue Lantern results despite comprising fifteen percent (15%) of checks completed. [Emphasis added.]
In the wake of CBS News’ publication of its DCS arms-diversion story, former CIA asset Plumlee, who served as a source for the network on the story, shot off an email to Producer Scholl expressing his disappointment in CBS’ handling of the story.
Some excerpts from Plumlee’s Dec. 7, 2011, email to Scholl:
… Some of the background and documentation [for CBS’ DCS story] had been located and verified by Bill Conroy of Narco News, who covered the material in detailed documentation as early as 2006. [Though Narco News has been following the arms trade in the drug war for some time, the first DCS story was published in early 2009]
… It appears to me that CBS has been less that ethical and totality unprofessional in reference to how this story originated. The Senate Judiciary committee has had the DCS and Narco News articles … and other related material for over a year ago. CBS presented it as new and took credit for the find ... shameful for an alleged, “professional” organization. Take care and the grade rating for CBS on this matter is a “D minus”; pass this along to the little lady [the author of the story, Attkisson]....
Scholl reacted to Plumlee’s criticism by firing back a defensive email that same day, Dec. 7 — the day after CBS published its DCS article. That email is republished in full below — with Scholl's comments indented and in italics and some observations by this reporter included in plain text.
CBS Producer Scholl’s Dec. 7 email response to Plumlee:
It’s obvious you’re angry but I will try to answer your concerns.
First, the suggestion that we should have credited all of those other organizations for this story is incorrect.
Others certainly have talked and written about the DCS program before us and we don’t claim credit for anyone else’s work (keep reading for my thoughts on this). Nor in fact did I obtain any facts from any of you’re the groups you cite. I frankly didn’t even read most of them. The facts we reported were those we obtained through our own research and most if not all are publicly available on State Department’s website and Wikileaks. None of the organizations can claim credit for putting them there or claim the exclusive right to report them.
You first have to know the public records exist and where to find them, and it’s clear Scholl through his charges sent an email to Narco News asking for that very information and that CBS was provided with direction on how to find the public records and links to prior reporting that drew from those records. And the line, “I didn’t read most of them,” implies that he did read some of them, but he has acknowledged in a previous email reading “Conoy’s stuff,” hence Narco News. As for the rest of the remarks above, readers can judge his defence for themselves.
We also did a lot of our own work such as calculating gun authorizations and the chart I built out of that. I could be wrong, but the only tallies I’ve seen out there were for all “defense articles” — not just guns. This took a fair amount of work separating the figures and we thought they were relevant. Similarly some of the Blue Lantern information that I discovered came through independent sources.
The Blue Lantern reports are quite thorough, so maybe Narco News was one of the “independent sources” that helped Scholl discover those reports? Also, on the numbers “calculating,” well, he is wrong. Narco News published specific “gun authorizations” in its initial DCS story, “Legal U.S. Arms May Be Source of Narco Syndicates Rising Firepower.” And it’s not rocket science to crunch those numbers since the specific authorizations are broken out by category in the DCS (Section 655) reports that are released annually by the State Department.
… Following is a sample of the types of arms shipments approved for export to Mexico through the DCS program during fiscal years 2006 and 2007 alone:
• $3.3 million worth of ammunition and explosives, including ammunition-manufacturing equipment;
• 13,000 nonautomatic and semiautomatic firearms, pistols and revolvers at a total value of $11.6 million;
• 42 grenade launchers valued at $518,531;
• 3,578 explosive projectiles, including grenades, valued at $78,251;
• Various night-vision equipment valued at $963,201. …
If you decide to do a little research, you can see examples on our website where we have not hesitated to “credit” or attribute certain facts to other organizations when credit is due. But that is far from the case here. And those situations are rare because we generally focus on orginal investigative work (which by definition doesnot mean no one in the world has ever talked or written about it).
The typo “doesnot” may be a Freudian slip, no?
Consider our work on the Fast and Furious story and the role other organizations played both before and after our stories. One at a time: first, the after. We were the first national news organization to report on the big allegations central to Fast and Furious. We got the first interviews with agents. We got the first details on some of the documents. And it became a topic on the national agenda after we reported it. Many other news organizations including some of those you cite have done their own work on the story since. And that’s great – that’s the way it works and the way it should work between responsible news organizations on an important story. And they have never given us credit. Nor would we expect it.
It is simply not the case that CBS News has received no credit from other news organizations for its work on the Fast and Furious story. In fact, other media have interviewed the CBS reporter, Attkisson, covering the Fast and Furious story for the network because she has inserted herself into the story.
From an Oct. 5 story in the Washington Times:
Sharyl Attkisson, an investigative journalist for CBS News, has been digging into the ‘Fast and Furious’ scandal, following information provided to her by whistle-blowers in January 2011.
… She alleges she was yelled at by Justice Department's Tracy Schmaler, while Eric Schultz at the White House ‘screamed and cussed’ at her when she asked those difficult questions.
Now go backward: some bloggers were out ahead of us on the story. We picked it up through our own sources, but talked to two bloggers and were able to expand on what they told us. They were happy. We have never credited them for being ahead of us because we did our own reporting. That’s what happened here.
This is an amazing admission by a major network producer that should make headlines itself — a concession that bloggers beat a multi-billion-dollar mainstream-media conglomerate on a major story of significance to the nation, but those bloggers were never given credit for their work. You have to wonder just how “happy” the bloggers are about the way they have been treated by CBS News.
Lastly, I’m not sure how you conclude that we “took credit for the find.” The only statement in our entire story that can even remotely have triggered your response is “Sharyl Attkisson discovered…” But as we made clear in the context, this was a direct reference to what we found in the Blue Lantern reports and other documents from inside the State Dept and through sources. Stating factually that our correspondent “discovered” something is like saying our reporter in the field on a breaking story “discovered rioters are not backing down.” On big stories, lots of reporters are making their own discoveries. But that is not the same as calling it “exclusive” or “first to report” or any of the dozens of other ways news organizations claim credit for stories. We did none of that.
Is your head spinning here? This sounds a lot like former President Bill Clinton’s defense in the Monica Lewinsky affair: "It depends on what the meaning of the words 'is' is."
Lastly, I have to ask you just how many of those other organizations you’ve cited credited the list of other complete list of other organizations who’ve reported on it. My guess is none. I’m sure a few credits here and there in certain circumstances were warranted and given. But with so many folks out there talking about something can any one group claim exclusive rights to it? Of course not. That’s the way things work in the field of journalism I’ve been part of for 27 years. And there is nothing “shameful” about it.
Well, that’s straw-man argument if there ever was one. In this case, though, CBS actually queried and/or interviewed independent journalists — including a Narco News correspondent on the DCS story, and, by Scholl’s own admission, at least two bloggers he himself credits with helping to break the Fast and Furious story. When you dip your foot that far in the water, it seems you should concede it got wet.
I’m disappointed in your reaction and the perjorative characterization of “the little lady” but I’ve done my best here to explain things as best I can.
When all else fails, attack the messenger. Political correctness is a dish best served with hypocrisy.
— End of email —
So, there you have it, a peek at the sausage-making process behind the creation of a mainstream media “investigative report.” It may not be pretty, but it’s the story.
Or, as former CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite used to say at the close of his broadcast reports: “And that’s the way it is.”
Narco News Past Coverage of the DCS Arms-Diversion Issue
• Legal U.S. Arms Exports May Be Source of Narco Syndicates Rising Firepower - March 29, 2009
• Pentagon Fingered as a Source of Narco-Firepower in Mexico - February 12, 2011
• U.S.-Backed Programs Supplying the Firepower for Mexico's Soaring Murder - April 14, 2011
CBS' DCS Arms Diversion Story
• Legal U.S. gun sales to Mexico arming cartels – Dec. 6, 2011