The U.K.’s Observer raised eyebrows Sunday for publishing a story alleging the United States had been working with European Union countries and Britain to collect personal communications data, based solely on the allegations of “conspiracy theorist” Wayne Madsen.
The paper later pulled the story from its website, but not until after it ran in print — and The Daily Beast’s Michael Moynihan said the paper’s Jamie Doward hadn’t even interviewed Madsen. (Update: After this piece was published, Madsen said that — contrary to Moynihan’s report — he did in fact talk with the Observer reporter.)
Published under the headline “Revealed: secret European deals to hand over private data to America,” the story claimed that Madsen, “a former US navy lieutenant who first worked for the NSA in 1985 and over the next 12 years held several sensitive positions within the agency, names Denmark, the Netherlands, France, Germany, Spain and Italy as having secret deals with the US.” Moynihan noted some problems with the report:
But even ignoring Madsen’s background, Doward’s story is a marvel of awful journalism. While the Observer headline screamed that it had “revealed” a troubling partnership between the United States and Europe in data sharing, Doward offhandedly mentions that Madsen was basing his claims on “declassified documents”—which, oddly, weren’t posted with the story and are available on the NSA’s website. And overlooked by those piling on The Observer was the rather significant fact that the paper appears not to have spoken to Madsen, instead mining quotes from an interview he gave to a blog called PrivacySurgeon.org. (Indeed, some of Doward’s language is very similar to the source material, but why kick a man when he’s down?)
Damian Thompson of Observer rival The Telegraph took great delight in pointing out the online row that resulted from the misstep. He started by pointing to an article in The Nation that examined Madsen’s current obsession with proving President Barack Obama is gay and goes from there.
Madsen’s Wikipedia page suggests… well, that someone at the Guardian/Observer didn’t Google “Wayne Madsen” before publishing. (Later, after the outcry, you can bet there was an orgy of Googling in the newsroom.) It refers to Madsen’s interest in “the TRUTH” about 9/11, Obama’s birthplace, and Israel (whose tentacles he detects everywhere).
All of which raises an intriguing question. Did the Guardian wing of the Guardian/Observer empire take a similarly rigorous approach when it broke the Edward Snowden story, now looking distinctly odd?
Moynihan noted that despite the Observer removing the story, it has taken on a life of its own, as online stories often do.
Desperate to get in on the NSA scoop game, Salon cannibalized the Madsen story, receiving a coveted Drudge Report link for its troubles. One can only assume that influenced Salon’s decision not to pull the story, instead issuing a vague “update” saying that TheObserver had pulled the story “pending an investigation.” The author of Salon’s piece, Prachi Gupta, didn’t respond to an email inquiry. From there, the Madsen story spidered out to Die Welt, the Sacramento Bee, Corriere Della Sera, and countless others.
Update: Wayne Madsen has told us that he did