A frequently-cited expert source on terrorism and national security and former consultant to ABC News was discredited after interviews with a host of high-profile figures he had contributed to a French political magazine were proven to be fakes.
Allegations that an interview with 2008 Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) that appeared in the June 2007 issue of Politique Internationale was a fabrication were first reported in another French magazine, Rue 89, on Sept. 7, 2007.
Politique Internationale credited the interview to Alexis Debat, a regular contributor to the magazine and senior fellow researching terrorism and national security at the Nixon Center, a think tank in Washington D.C.
Debat has become a widely cited source in recent years, quoted on terrorism and national security in stories for the Associated Press (AP), The New York Times, and The (London) Sunday Times and appearing on ABC World News and PBS’ “The News Hour with Jim Lehrer.”
Since the revelation of the fake Obama interview, other high profile figures have denied sitting for interviews which were published under Debat’s name in Politique Internationale, including former President Bill Clinton, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan, Microsoft chairman Bill Gates, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
According to Rue 89, the Obama campaign denied any interview ever taking place with Debat himself or with a third party he claimed to have hired to ask the interview questions on his behalf, calling what was published in Politique Internationale “a fake.”
Debat initially explained to inquiring news organizations, among them Rue 89, the Washington Post, and ABC News, that he had paid a man named Rob Sherman $500 to meet with Obama, interview him and then provide a transcript of the interview. Debat told Rue 89 that Sherman was a “Chicago-based reporter” who he had met at a party in Washington D.C. in 2003.
No news organizations were able to locate Sherman, however. Debat said Sherman described himself as a former Chicago Tribune reporter, but according to the Washington Post, no one with that name has had a byline in that newspaper in recent decades. A suburban Chicago newspaper reported to ABC News that an address on a fax that Debat claimed was from Sherman does not exist.
Debat’s claim to ABC News that he “was scammed” by Sherman appeared less likely as the list of fake interviews grew and more evidence raised questions about Debat’s credentials.
In June 2007, Debat was fired by ABC News, where he had been a consultant on terrorism for five years, because he was unable to verify that he had a PhD from the Sorbonne as he had claimed. According to the Washington Post, Debat’s doctoral thesis was available on the Sorbonne’s Web site as of September 13, but he had not been awarded a degree because it “hadn’t been registered correctly.” He said he is suing the French university.
ABC News reported on October 22 that it had concluded an investigation and found all of Debat’s reporting was sound. According to The New York Times, David L. Westin, president of ABC News, said in a memorandum that ABC will now more thoroughly review claims of prior employment and academic credentials made by its consultants. Westin also wrote that the network’s news practices unit will now be involved in all hiring decisions and reporting situations involving consultants, reported The New York Times.
Other credentials Debat claimed have also subsequently been debunked.
According to the AP, media outlets in recent years identified Debat as a former French Defense Ministry official or analyst. The National Interest, the publication of the Nixon Center, identified him as a “former adviser to the French Minister of Defense on Transatlantic affairs.”
However the ministry said Debat’s service there amounted only to a five-month internship at a ministry advisory office in 2000 and one month of military service.
Col. Patrick Chanliau, a Defense Ministry spokesman, said that Debat’s claim of being an adviser was an exaggeration.
“There is no such thing as intern adviser to the minister,” Chanliau said.
Politique Internationale editor Patrick Wajsman admitted that the Obama interview was not the first piece by Debat that had caused problems, according to ABC News and Rue 89. In 2005, an interview with then-U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan was pulled from the publication when a deputy communications director told Wajsman the interview was a fake.
A second interview with Annan, which was published this year and attributed to Debat, was actually portions of a speech Annan gave at Princeton University, the deputy communications director told ABC News.
According to the Washington Post, Debat resigned from his positions as a fellow at the Nixon Center and writer for The National Interest on Sept. 12, 2007.
Wajsman told ABC News he had seen no reason to be suspicious of Debat, even after the warning from the U.N.
“He seemed to be well-connected in Washington, working for ABC and the Nixon center,” Wajsman said. “I was a victim of this man.”
Wajsman said he has referred the matter to his lawyer for possible action against Debat.
- Patrick File, Silha Fellow and Bulletin Editor