How Alexis Debat managed to cheat everyone in Washington
For years, this so-called « expert » managed to fool think tanks and the media despite obvious warning signs.
How could someone, in the age of the Internet, manage to fake interviews with world leaders without being caught, while working for the famous investigative unit of one of the biggest American television networks ?
First reported by Rue89, the affair of the mythomaniac analyst is causing a stir in the United States. How did Alexis Debat, a self-proclaimed expert on terrorism, manage to build such a career for himself –as a regular contributor to the foreign affairs reviews Politique Internationale and National Interest, a consultant for ABC News and as an analyst at the prestigious Nixon Center attending conferences with the cream of the crop of American foreign policy circles ?
On September 5, Rue89 revealed that Debat had provided Politique Internationale with a fake interview carrying his byline, of Senator Barack Obama who is running for the Democratic party nomination in the 2008 presidential election. Our research showed that Debat was also puffing his resume, falsely claiming a PhD as well as cooked-up professional positions.
Debat defends himself by saying that he made the mistake of trusting « a third party » to ask his questions. But the spokesperson for former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, who was also « interviewed by » Debat for Politique Internationale, told us his was also fake. As were the ones Debat conducted with Microsoft founder Bill Gates, New York city Mayor Michael Bloomberg, former president Bill Clinton, among many others.
« The guy was an ABC News consultant ! »
When we discovered the fabricated Obama interview and contacted Politique Internationale’s editor Patrick Wajsman, he told us he was stunned and thinks of himself as the fabricator’s « first victim. »
At ABC News, where Debat had been featured as an expert, Jeffrey Schneider, vice-president for communication, told us the network had been warned in May about Debat’s academic credentials and immediately opened an investigation. The contract between Debat and the network was (very discreetly) canceled in June.
At the Nixon Center, which severed ties last Tuesday with Alexis Debat, the reaction was first « no comment, » followed by « could you repeat everything to the director’s voice mail ? “
All of them seemed taken by surprise.
However there was no shortage of warning signs over the last few years. The big mystery in this affair is why none of Debat’s employers seem to have paid attention.
Stephane Dujarric, then a spokesman for UN secretary-general Kofi Annan, remembers that in 2005 he asked Politique Internationale not to run a fabricated interview of Annan. Politique Internationale had contacted the United Nations to ask a couple of extra questions to Annan to complete an interview done by Debat. Dujarric could find no record of such an interview ever having taken place. He called ABCNews to reach Debat, who replied that the interview was done ‘ through a third person’ (again) on May 26. On the day in question, Annan was actually in Ethiopia attending talks on Darfur. To resolve the incident, Wajsman gave Dujarric a subscription to Politique Internationale.
‘I didn’t run the Kofi Annan interview because I applied the principle of precaution in that case,’ Patrick Wasjman told us. Apparently the incident wasn’t enough for him to sever ties with the author of the interview. ‘I didn’t believe for one minute it had been fabricated. After all, the guy was an ABC News consultant !’
At ABC News the story officially began in May. At that time, as Rue89 revealed, a reporter within the network who was suspicious of Debat’s work conducted her own research into Debat’s resume and acted as a whistleblower.
Since the Debat story broke, questions are pouring in about ABCNews. ‘How can they talk about what the Taliban are doing when they are not even able to track a PhD ? How good is Brian Ross if he needs Debat ? This is a media problem, not a Debat problem,’ says Mark Perry, a military intelligence expert who befriended Debat. ‘Why do my sources say ABC did not conduct a more extensive investigation of his work when it asked him to resign back in June ?’, asked journalist and foreign affairs specialist Laura Rozen, on her blog.
Over the years, Debat was a source for many ABC News scoops : on Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan among others. Like its competitors, the network has strict ethical rules, employing a director of standards and practices. Information is supposed to be vetted or reliably confirmed. But fact-checking was not easy with Debat’s scoops as they were always attributed to anonymous sources hiding from within the shadowy world of secret services in Pakistan, France or the U.S
A correction from the ministry of Defense
Debat, 35, a cordial and good-looking man, had been suspected of embellishing his resume for a while.
In September 2002, Jean-François Bureau, spokesperson for the French Defense department, asked Liberation to run a correction after the French newspaper quoted Debat on the role Zacarias Moussaoui played on 9/11.
‘ (...)’ On September 11, Moussaoui had his return ticket to France. He was supposed to be interviewed and detained in France” said Alexis Debat, presented on ABC News as a “ former official of the French Defense Ministry” . In Paris, the Defense Ministry distanced itself from this statement, saying Alexis Debat “ never belonged to this ministry” .
When Guillemette Faure met Debat in June 2005, while researching a Figaro newspaper story about the CIA headquarters, she had already heard of his taste for exaggeration. He agreed to meet, saying “I’m just back from Pakistan. I have information about the hunt for Bin Laden”. His accounts were filled with amazing and colorful detail (babies are not authorized to tell their last name at the CIA nursery for example). On his thick business card, there is no company name ; it reads only “Alexis Debat, Ph.D” .
Responding later to an email question about his Ph.D, he replies that “Edenvale University ‘ issued the degree. But a Google search reveals an university that only exists in the form of an Internet page selling diplomas by phone.
Many reporters, analysts and diplomats, in Washington and New York had been suspicious of Debat for several years. How could it be that none of their conversations ever reached ABC News’s finest sleuths ? Stéphane Dujarric, the UN spokesperson who disputed the accuracy of Kofi Annan’s interview, used to work for ABC News.
Within the investigative unit at ABCNews, Alexis Debat was some times nicknamed Pepe Le Pew.’ The Frenchman was under the wing of star journalist Brian Ross within a unit created specifically for him. Ross was allotted exceptional latitude and considerable resources after the 9/11 attacks. The decision by ABC News, at least on its website, to let Ross cover the Debat fiasco appears odd, to say the least, since the Frenchman was de facto reporting to Ross.
The art of the fake interview
‘Alexis Debat is a fraud who succeeded,’ is how André Kaspi put it. Kaspi is an American history professeur at the Sorbonne who was initially suposed to supervise Debat’s Ph.D. He was actually a brillant fraud who fooled not only a French review but the US capital as well.
Debat paid attention to details. Just after an alleged interview of Michael Bloomberg, Debat sent an email to Patrick Wajsman at Politique Internationale :
‘ Dear Sir,
The interview with Michael Bloomberg went well. It lasted a little less than one hour but I managed to go over all our questions. I think the interview is prestigious enough to be worth the cover of the next issue’ .
Lies were harmoniously arranged such as when aBill Clinton is quoted as happily saying to Debat ‘I see that you talked to my wife, for an interview’ that ran several issues after the one purporting to be with Hillary Clinton.
If the exclusive scoops and interviews had not raised more suspicion, it may also well have been because Alexis Debat never went against the grain of public opinion. On September 2nd in the Sunday Times of London, he revealed secret plans by the Bush administration to bomb Iran ‘in three days.’ Four years ago, at the height of French-American tensions over Iraq, he explained how Uday Hussein, son of Saddam, forced two French students on a trip to Baghdad to have sex at gunpoint while being videotaped. Surfing on the ambient francophobia, he said that according to a cable he saw, the French government covered up the incident. ‘After all, this is the son of Saddam Hussein !’
A spiral of credulity
The credulity of certain individuals leads to the confidence of others. ‘We relied on ABC News for his credentials,’ says Anne Bell, publicist for the Jim Lehrer Newshour on PBS, where Debat appeared, depending on the news of the day, as an expert on terrorism or the French riots. ‘Brian Ross and the Nixon Center are impressive credentials that carry weight,’ a member of the military told us. ‘You won’t believe the list of the people who attended his Nixon Center briefings.’
At 35, Alexis Debat was quite successful. He had a respectable position in a well-regarded think tank, was a regular face on television and was quoted in newspapers. So why did he need to keep fabricating interviews in a French publication with a limited circulation ? This is another mystery of this stunning story.
When Debat was hired by the Nixon Center on May 22nd 2006, the press release of the conservative think tanks proudly announced the arrival of a ‘creative analyst.’ They could not have found a better way to describe their new recruit.
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