TNR And ‘Scott Thomas’

Someone needs to step up with some proof

By now you’re probably familiar with the flap over whether or not a soldier reportedly serving in Iraq, who has been writing for The New Republic under the pseudonym “Scott Thomas,” has been telling the truth in a series of articles he has produced for the magazine since February.

Thomas’ latest “Baghdad Diaries” missive, in which he recounts his mess-hall mocking of a woman who was severely injured by an IED, running over dogs in a Bradley Fighting Vehicle, and toying with the skull fragments of an Iraqi child, has drawn the fire of the community of military bloggers, as well as The Weekly Standard blogger, Michael Goldfarb, who are doing all they can to disprove Thomas’s stories.

TNR’s editor, Franklin Foer, who declined CJR’s request for an interview, told Howard Kurtz on Sunday that he, along with another editor, have met Thomas and that he’s “been in touch with several members of the author’s unit who corroborate the details under question.” That’s fine as far as it goes, but Foer’s contention that “conservative bloggers make a bit of a living denying any bad news that emanates from Iraq,” true or not, sounds more like a time-buying dodge rather than anything else.

Still, even given some of the anecdotal evidence percolating in the blogosphere that suggests the “Baghdad Diarist” stories might be compelling inventions—or at least exaggerated composites—there has yet to be any concrete evidence offered to debunk any of Thomas’ stories.

It’s been established that Thomas is stationed at Forward Operating Base Falcon, outside of Baghdad, prompting soldiers and contractors who claim to be presently serving, or to have previously served there, to write in to certain blogs and strongly contest that any of the incidents Thomas describes could have occurred.

Major Kirk Luedeke, the public affairs officer at FOB Falcon, is among the critics of Thomas’ pieces. Major Luedeke told me that his office’s informal investigation has narrowed the field of possible authors to “one company of about 100 troops, based on some of his previous references about places, equipment and activities. Beyond that there’s not much we can do to discover his identity.”

He stresses that the investigation “is not about curtailing one’s right to free speech. It is about holding someone accountable when they possibly hurt our mission here with false accounts. We take great pride in the dangerous, but rewarding work our men and women do each day, so for one to besmirch those achievements and accomplishments with what certainly seems at the very least to be embellishments and half-truths, it’s something we take seriously.” As well he should. And his investigation counts for more than all the anecdotal evidence the blogosphere is tossing out, unless, of course, someone turns up something conclusive. As it stands now, the blogs are providing context, but aren’t doing any investigative reporting on their own that disproves Thomas’ claims. Goldfarb writes today that while TNR has yet to prove the veracity of Thomas’ tales, “numerous experts and soldiers have written in to question ‘Thomas”s account of a Bradley Fighting Vehicle careening around the streets of Baghdad in an attempt to kill as many stray dogs as possible. These experts tell us that the account could not have happened as ‘Thomas’ describes owing to the mechanics of the vehicle and the position of the driver.” The narrative being constructed by these “experts and soldiers” is fine as far as it goes, but neither side has proven anything yet—something to keep in mind before we convict or acquit TNR.

Finally, it looks like there’s some scrambling going on internally at TNR. The New York Times quotes Foer this morning as saying that he knows with “near certainty” that Thomas is a soldier—but on TNR’s blog, The Plank, this morning, an Editors’ note takes issue with this, saying that while the Times writes that “TNR knows with ‘near certainty’ that Scott Thomas is a soldier in Iraq … in fact, we know this with absolute certainty.”

Even if TNR is right about Thomas, the larger question is whether Thomas is right about what he writes. A little transparency, please.

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Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.