The Other McCain

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The Blair-Glass ‘Sleeper Cell’ — British Tabloid Fabricates a Phony Scoop

Posted on | April 21, 2013 | 43 Comments

Here’s a quote from the New York Times, about Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s trip to Russia last year:

Kevin Brock, a former senior FBI and counterterrorism official, said, “It’s a key thread for investigators and the intelligence community to pull on.”

On the top of Memeorandum last night was this headline from the British tabloid, the Mirror:

Boston bombers: FBI hunting
12-strong terrorist “sleeper cell” linked
to brothers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev

Somebody sent that story to me and so I looked at it. After reading the wild-ass quotes from a “source close to the investigation” and finding nothing else in the story to back up that claim, I  noticed something else in the Mirror story:

Yesterday senior FBI counter-terrorism official Kevin Brock said: “It’s a key thread for investigators.”

Whoa! You’ve got a “source close to the investigation” feeding you this big exclusive about a “sleeper cell” — a claim that no other news organization has been able to verify, I hasten to point out — and yet you also resort to cribbing quotes from the New York Times, while failing to note Brock’s status as a “former” FBI official? Does anyone else detect the fragrance of bovine excrement here?

So I e-mailed my friend:

It’s important to evaluate stories like this on the basis of sourcing and how it’s put together: Notice that the Mirror leads with an outrageous headline claim — decidedly important, if true — about this alleged “sleeper cell,” but that this is based on a single “source close to the investigation” who is never even characterized: DOJ? CIA? NSA? Some cop eating donuts?
We have nothing in the description of the quoted source that would allow us to evaluate the credibility of the outrageous claim, nor does there seem to have been any effort to verify this claim with any official source. There isn’t even so much as a “no comment” from a named source. Instead, after leading with this seemingly far-fetched “sleeper cell” claim based on a blind-quoted source, the Mirror then goes on to tell the reader about (not-really-related) details that could have been — and may actually have been — culled from the morning newspapers and TV coverage.
And the quote from Kevin Brock, FBI counter-terrorism official? Cribbed from the New York Times!
This isn’t journalism, it’s complete bullshit. If I were the editor of a newspaper whose reporter turned in a story like this, I’d fire any son of a bitch who let it get into print. Hell, when I was working for the Washington Times, I’d have gotten my head bitten off by Geoff Etnyre if I’d let a mess like this get as far as the copy desk.
There are two bylines on this story. I checked to make sure it wasn’t co-written by Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass.

This isn’t even good phony journalism — Blair and Glass actually managed to get away with their fraudulent impostures for a while, but this exercise in dishonesty is apparent at first glance.

There is too much good reporting about this story — like this excellent recap of the investigation by the Washington Post — to waste time on bogus garbage about a “sleeper cell.” Want something really interesting? Check out Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s Amazon Wish List.

UPDATE: To clarify — as there seems to be some confusion among commenters here and in the Twitter reaction — what I’m disputing is the Mirror‘s “source” quoted here:

The FBI was last night hunting a 12-strong terrorist “sleeper cell” linked to the Boston marathon bomb brothers. . . .
A source close to the investigation said: “We have no doubt the brothers were not acting alone. The devices used to detonate the two bombs were highly sophisticated and not the kind of thing people learn from Google.
“They were too advanced. Someone gave the brothers the skills and it is now our job to find out just who they were. Agents think the sleeper cell has up to a dozen members and has been waiting several years for their day to come.”

That last sentence in particular reeks of rancid bullshit. I am not for a moment discounting the likelihood that the Brothers Tsarnaev had accomplices, or that Tamerlan’s trip to Russia was connected to this attack, which may indeed be part of a larger conspiracy.

What I am saying is that there is no way on God’s green earth that two reporters for a British tabloid could have a “source close to the investigation” who could describe with such specificity a “12-strong terrorist ‘sleeper cell,'” and yet none of the national-security reporters in America — people who regularly cover this beat and have relationships of trust with top sources — could match that scoop.

Even if someone “close to the investigation” actually gave those quotes to the Mirror reporters, which I am inclined to doubt, that’s not the kind of exclusive you run as a headline — not on a story this important — without getting some corroboration from other officials, and at least a “did not return calls seeking comment” from the responsible agencies. This story presents no hint that the Mirror reporters even tried to corroborate their lead.

So I’m calling bullshit.



43 Responses to “The Blair-Glass ‘Sleeper Cell’ — British Tabloid Fabricates a Phony Scoop”

  1. narciso
    April 21st, 2013 @ 8:03 pm

    Well what Kevin Brock is doing now;

  2. Dai Alanye
    April 21st, 2013 @ 8:09 pm

    Well, I’m disappointed! you’ve spoiled a fine tale for me.

  3. narciso
    April 21st, 2013 @ 8:17 pm

    The only odd thing is that Brock was much more restrained in his official capacity!search/profile/person?personId=317842629&targetid

  4. robertstacymccain
    April 21st, 2013 @ 8:36 pm


    I’m convinced the Mirror either made that shit up from thin air, or else can’t tell a legit source from a bullshit artist.

  5. Boston bombers: Lone wolves or part of a terrorist sleeper cell? UPDATE: “Sleeper cell” malarkey? | Public Secrets
    April 21st, 2013 @ 9:40 pm

    […] reporters on both sides of the Atlantic are calling BS on the Mirror’s story. R.S. McCain questions the sourcing, while Telegraph journalist Toby Harnden […]

  6. archer52
    April 21st, 2013 @ 9:41 pm

    Let me help you out here. There is a lot going on. One- The FBI was given a heads up by a foreign intel agency. Understand what that means. A foreign intel agency felt alarmed enough to tell their government to tell our government to tell our intel agency about ONE INDIVIDUAL.

    Do not dismiss this. Further, there is no way to avoid the obvious. The new PC definition of terrorism, pushed by the administration is so loose that almost anyone is not a terrorist anymore. Bureaucratic PC killed those people. I know, been there done that.

    Understand, it isn’t a crime unless defined as such. In a sense we could eliminate all murderers by redefining murder as applying only to one legged midgets as victims.

    Somebody on the line- an agent or a JTTF officer snuck the press the file to force the FBI and DOJ to own up. It is likely they are also talking out of school about the other stuff too. Think about how hard the bureaucrats up the chain are going to work to make this screw up go away. As it is, they did their best to delay the release of suspect photos they already had identified.

  7. Neo
    April 21st, 2013 @ 10:02 pm

    “… there is no way on God’s green earth that two reporters for a British tabloid could have a “source close to the investigation” who could describe with such specificity a “12-strong terrorist ‘sleeper cell,’” …”

    I believe that they were engaged in what is commonly referred to as “throwing shit at the wall” and seeing what sticks.

  8. Neo
    April 21st, 2013 @ 10:17 pm

    Just because my fly isn’t open doesn’t mean that somebody hasn’t set my hair on fire.

  9. M. Thompson
    April 21st, 2013 @ 10:21 pm

    Wait and see what happens is still the best advice.

  10. Millie_Woods
    April 21st, 2013 @ 10:27 pm

    I thought the same thing, with one dead and the other unable to talk, where did the info come from? Unless the FBI had prior knowledge, which would open a whole ‘nother can of worms.

  11. ThomasD
    April 21st, 2013 @ 10:40 pm

    Saw that thing earlier today and likewise assumed it was nonsense. The use of a finite number “twelve man” was waht positively screamed bullshit.

    Given that members of a cell either get identified by a rat, or by associations. If it was a rat they’d all be in custody by now, and if it was by association just how do you know when to stop adding names to the list?

  12. Joe Thomas
    April 21st, 2013 @ 10:43 pm

    Stacy, have you been following the story about the Saudi national who was called a “suspect,” a “person of interest,” and then a “victim” in the bombing? Steve Emerson told Hannity on Wednesday, citing a single anonymous “senior official,” that the Saudi was going to be deported on national security grounds. Napolitano told GOP Congressmen on Friday that it was nonsense, and now Breitbart has a very thinly sourced story that says the deportation order was rescinded Thursday night.

    I’m inclined to call bullshit on the whole thing, but would like to hear your take.

  13. Deborah Soutar
    April 21st, 2013 @ 11:04 pm

    This whole thing stinks like yesterday’s garbage. These two characters were amateurs. Someones else had to be involved and is/ was letting them take the fall, not that they didn’t do it but that someone else made the plans. It’s the only thing that explains the “no exit strategy”.

  14. DaleinAtlanta
    April 21st, 2013 @ 11:19 pm

    Yeah, you’re right about this; I’ve been trying to track down the 12 man sleeper cell headline since I first saw it too; and not even another media source can confirm it..its bullshit! Like you, I agree the Brothers had help, probably from Dagestan, and the trip was all about hooking up with fellow Jihadis, and they may even have a network of supporters/sycophants/groupies/wannabee Jihadis here in the US; but a “12 man Sleeper Cell”?? pure bullshit!

  15. Evi L. Bloggerlady
    April 21st, 2013 @ 11:30 pm

    That is not the quote I thought was significant, this was:

    The devices used to detonate the two bombs were highly sophisticated and not the kind of thing people learn from Google.
    “They were too advanced. Someone gave the brothers the skills and it is now our job to find out just who they were.

    Is that BS, or is it true? That is something that will be confirmed one way or the other relatively quickly.

  16. Adjoran
    April 21st, 2013 @ 11:59 pm

    Yes, that was a bridge too far in the story, too specific.

    More practiced liars, like the US domestic media, would have taken a minimalist approach.

  17. Adjoran
    April 22nd, 2013 @ 12:00 am

    This sounds plausible enough, BUT it defies belief that some credible source “close to the investigation” would confide such key information to a London tabloid when no one else is reporting it.

  18. Adjoran
    April 22nd, 2013 @ 12:01 am

    What’s more, the heads-up came from Russia, which only rarely shares or advises on terror-related intel.

  19. Iam BarKahn
    April 22nd, 2013 @ 12:34 am

    Whether your analysis is correct or not, your faith in American national security reporters is undoubtedly misplaced. Have you learned nothing during the last 12 years?

  20. Dai Alanye
    April 22nd, 2013 @ 1:10 am

    I’m going to assume you misdirected this comment, since it conveys no meaning.

  21. Orson Olson
    April 22nd, 2013 @ 1:12 am

    ” These two characters were amateurs. ” Or maybe not. Staciy’ss rubbishing does not make sense under the plausibility of the circumstances – namely, the FBI doing CYA having already erroneously cleared the older brother in 2011. they need to redeem themselves from their incompetence.

  22. Evi L. Bloggerlady
    April 22nd, 2013 @ 1:18 am

    Not like it was portrayed, but I could see rumor of that spreading through law enforcement quickly.

  23. Evi L. Bloggerlady
    April 22nd, 2013 @ 1:21 am

    That is the part that is chilling. Let’s say they are lone wolves, they were wolves that the shepherds were told were already in the sheep pen. And they did nothing. Heads should roll for that alone.

  24. scooby509
    April 22nd, 2013 @ 4:39 am

    I don’t think Bob’s expressing great faith in US national security reporters, just that they have been on this beat and have better sources in US government than a UK tabloid.

  25. Good Stuff
    April 22nd, 2013 @ 5:37 am

    honey trap? baiting/testing a journalist?

  26. Matt Noto
    April 22nd, 2013 @ 7:53 am

    According the George Orwell (a great English journalist in his own right) one of the stock tricks of the newspaper reporter is the ability to invent news out of thin air on a slow news day.

    With a little bit of imagination, the mundane ‘Cat Caught in Tree; Firemen Respond” story becomes “Fire Department Engages in Massive Rescue!”, complete with photographs of a mess of fire trucks, and a cuddly kitten in a fireman’s arms.

    Winston Smith is alive and working at the Mirror! I thought I’d recognized that story about Comrade Ogilvie they ran just last week…

  27. Shawny Lee
    April 22nd, 2013 @ 11:02 am

    Thanks for the due diligence and integrity in reporting. There’s a whole bucket full of crap being flung at the fan now, much of it is deliberate disinformation by our government and main stream media. This is where the rubber meets the road on keeping it real, sorting through all of the convoluted information to get to the facts. It’s critical we know what’s really going down in order to be vigilant. Few know or are reporting it. I’ll look for my confirmations here.

  28. Wumingren
    April 22nd, 2013 @ 11:46 am

    Evi, I was thinking it might be disinformation designed to dissuade would-be bombers from attempting to create their own pressure-cooker bombs.

  29. brianrw
    April 22nd, 2013 @ 1:15 pm

    Never believe anything that you read in The Mirror unless it is also in The Times (of London).

  30. crosspatch
    April 22nd, 2013 @ 3:15 pm

    I wasn’t buying it. One reason was that every report I saw of some “sleeper cell” referenced the Mirror story as its source. That might happen in the first few hours of a scoop but after some period of time, the information trickles out to other news sources. Law enforcement isn’t beholden to give information exclusively to one source, particularly when it is information that “belongs” to the public in the first place unless the person leaking the info is doing so on the sneak.

    So here we are many hours after the initial reporting and still nothing being sourced from other news sources. So I agree, the story is likely bullshit or the Mirror is engaging in phone bugging and picked up something they shouldn’t have.

  31. richard mcenroe
    April 22nd, 2013 @ 3:37 pm

    @piersmorgan EDITED the Mirror. What else do you need to know about how trustworthy it is?

  32. archonix
    April 22nd, 2013 @ 4:38 pm

    This is the Mirror. They make shit up, it’s their stock in trade and has been since the day the paper was founded. Piers Morgan was fired as editor of the mirror several years back for approving a story that was completely false – one that alleged British infantry had tortured Iraqis in the aftermath of the Iraq war (complete with very obviously faked photographs) but he was merely the pimple on top of the giant puss-filled cyst that this newspaper has always been.

    The story had to be made up for him to approve. The people that made it up weren’t fired and probably still work there.

  33. Evi L. Bloggerlady
    April 22nd, 2013 @ 5:12 pm

    That is an interesting point. Maybe.

    Here is some advice to all: Mamas don’t let your babies grow up to be converts…

  34. ¡No Pasarán!
    April 22nd, 2013 @ 6:40 pm

    Looks like a pile of Bravo Sierra from here. Besides, the Mirror is Piers Morgan’s former trashy leftist rag – they have no love for the US, and am sure they don’t care if energy is expended chasing down a canards.

  35. just another dummy
    April 22nd, 2013 @ 7:07 pm

    (said in slow southern voice) I like me a little Tsarnaev with BBQ sauce and mustard.

  36. richard mcenroe
    April 22nd, 2013 @ 8:31 pm

    There’s gonna be a shi’ite load of misinformation and willful disinformation coming out on this. That’s the modern Dem administration model…enough mutually contradictory statements and self-evident horseradish and eventually people will just get sick of trying to make sense of it. Pile on top of that conspiracy theorists whose one consolation in life is that they alone are in possession of the real, secret truth and just plain opportunists like the Daily Mirror and citizen who doesn’t want to be a low-info prole has a hard row to hoe.

  37. sheryl
    April 22nd, 2013 @ 11:17 pm

    Hello? Are you there? I visit here daily, once or twice, it is true..
    I visit today, there is nothing new from you..
    It is now time for bed, so sleep I must..
    I will return in the morning to a new posting I trust…

  38. John Jonovich
    April 23rd, 2013 @ 7:50 am

    British Tabloids still more credible than ABC, NBC, CBS and CNN. Just sayin’.

  39. Becca Lower
    April 23rd, 2013 @ 10:00 am

    Good thing I haven’t eaten breakfast yet… conspiracy kooks are trying to say that that double amputee injury was faked. I repeat, what in the hell is wrong with people?

  40. Dealing with A Press Gone Pyscho? Drinking Helps... - LeatherPenguin
    April 23rd, 2013 @ 12:20 pm

    […] Leader of the Moron Horde, and the ineffably brutal Stacy McCain. They offer either ridicule, or “this reeks of bullshit,” observations of the MBM’s coverage of the shifting Marathon bombings’ landscape. When […]

  41. K-Bob
    April 24th, 2013 @ 4:25 pm

    holy crap! That’s some deep, tinfoil hattery there. Wonder what they hope to gain from such lunacy?

  42. K-Bob
    April 24th, 2013 @ 4:26 pm

    Because “Page Three,” if nothing else.

  43. Still No Confirmation of ‘Sleeper Cell’ Connection in Boston Marathon Bombing : The Other McCain
    April 27th, 2013 @ 11:09 am

    […] I immediately called into question the authenticity of that scoop: How was it that these two British tabloid writers were able to get a “source close to the investigation” to give them this shocking revelation as an exclusive, a scoop that none of the veteran U.S. reporters covering the story was able to match? And, if Bucktin and Lines had such excellent sources, why was the rest of that story composed of stuff that anyone could have compiled from other media sources, including a quote cribbed from the New York Times? […]