In a spectacular scoop, the most serious and authoritative newspaper of France, Le Monde, announced on its front page last Tuesday that "An Israeli Spy Network Was Dismantled in the United States." The lengthy article asserts that "without doubt" this is the biggest spy story of its type in over 15 years.
But American journalists found not a shred of evidence to support the claim, and it met with wall-to-wall derision from the U.S. and Israeli governments. The Justice Department spokeswoman, for instance, dismissed it as "an urban myth that has been circulating for months" and indicated there were no Israelis arrested for espionage. The FBI spokesman called it a "bogus story" and said "there wasn't a spy ring."
Actually, any observant reader can sense that Le Monde's account - with its crazy-quilt of unsourced allegations, drive-by innuendoes and incoherent obscurities, but no hard facts - makes no sense.
That one of the world's most prestigious newspapers promotes such errant nonsense prompts two observations.
First, even the most sober media have a proven weakness for sensational conspiracy theories. The New York Times found itself wiping egg off its collective face after lavishing attention in May 1991 on the "October surprise" theory peddled by Gary Sick that, to win the presidential election in 1980, Ronald Reagan had conspired with the ayatollahs in 1980 to keep Americans imprisoned in Iran. In June 1998, CNN aired "Valley of Death," a would-be exposé of American troops' use of sarin nerve gas during a clandestine 1970 raid into Laos. The two producers and the on-air narrator (Peter Arnett) all lost their jobs as a result.
Second, such conspiracy theories do not appear suddenly, but emerge piecemeal from the muck. In this case, the notion that found full flower in Le Monde apparently began life as a passing reference in, of all things, the September 1998 Starr Report on President Bill Clinton's relationship with Monica Lewinsky. During their final sexual encounter, on March 29, 1997, Lewinsky reported that the couple had a lengthy conversation in which the president told her "he suspected that a foreign embassy (he did not specify which one) was tapping his telephones."
This was red meat for conspiracy theorists, who immediately focused on Israel. For example, Gordon Thomas, a British journalist, in March 1999 announced (in Gideon's Spies: The Secret History of the Mossad, from St. Martin's) that Israel's intelligence service possessed tapes with 30 hours of Clinton-Lewinsky cooings.
The usually responsible Insight magazine elaborated on this theory in May 2000 with a story on the "huge security nightmare" of Israeli spying on high-level U.S. officials by "using telephone-company equipment at remote sites to track calls placed to or received from high-ranking government officials, possibly including the president himself."
Fox News immediately named an Israeli company involved: Amdocs, Ltd., which supposedly has the records (though not the contents) of virtually every call made in the United States. In June 2001, a Justice Department task force issued a 61-page draft report noting a pattern of activities by Israelis in the United States and raised the possibility of their being part of an intelligence-gathering operation - possibly of a drug-trafficking gang.
In mid-December 2001, Fox News named a second Israeli telephone company (Comverse Infosys, which it said has access to nearly all wiretaps placed by U.S. law enforcement), then added an explosive accusation: Israel had its own spying operation against militant Islamic groups in the United States and "may have gathered intelligence about the [9/11] attacks in advance, and not shared it."
Here, Fox News regurgitated a very tired theme. For example, in a 1990 exposé of the Mossad, By Way of Deception, Victor Ostrovsky claimed that Israeli agents knew in advance about the truck bomb that killed 241 U.S. Marines in October 1983 but did not warn their American counterparts.
A Paris-based newsletter, Intelligence Online, in late February reported the U.S. Department of Justice had neutralized a "vast network of Israeli intelligence agents" by arresting or expelling 120 Israelis.
Finally, Le Monde (which is presently in negotiations to buy Intelligence Online) completed the process by broadcasting Intelligence Online's fantasy to the wide world.
All this matters, for conspiracy theories are easier to kill than to bury. They haunt the fringes of the political spectrum, poisoning the political debate. Shame, then, on those media outlets that contributed to this dangerous falsehood.