Recommended Biography for Speaking Events
Frank Smyth (pronounced like Smythe) is an independent, award-winning investigative journalist specializing in armed conflicts, organized crime and human rights overseas, and on the gun movement and its influence at home. He is a former arms trafficking investigator for Human Rights Watch breaking the role of France in arming Rwanda before its genocide. Smyth is a global authority on journalist security and press freedom testifying to Congress and the member states of several multilateral organizations. Frank is founder and CEO of GJS, today the leading U.S.-based hostile environments training firm. He is the author of The NRA: The Unauthorized History, published by Flatiron in 2020. Frank is featured speaking throughout the documentary, “The Price of Freedom,” about the NRA and gun violence that aired on CNN in 2021 and that is now airing on HBO Max.
Narrative Biography to Read — only if you’ve got the time 😉
Frank began his career in 1984 on Wall Street in the World Trade Center at Telerate, the first real-time (pre-Internet) electronic stock and bond trading system. His first major story, “Duarte’s Secret Friends,” in 1987 in The Nation broke “SECRET” U.S. State Department cables revealing the Reagan administration was, in its own words, trying “one by one” to “destroy” the opposition labor movement in El Salvador.
Smyth was based in San Salvador from 1988 through 1990, reporting for CBS News Radio and others. He reported and criticized abusive tactics by leftist guerrillas in The Progressive in 1988 including the planting of car bombs in populated areas and assassinations of locally elected majors. In 1989 in The Village Voice, he wrote “Waiting for Tet” while embedded with El Salvador’s leftist guerrillas on the slopes of the volcano overlooking the capital, also quoting an audio recording of a U.S. military advisor under heavy fire the month before in Zacatecoluca, near the capital, aired at the time over CBS News Radio. Three months later, Frank documented a massive influx of Soviet and Chinese arms to the guerrillas. After five more months, in November 1989, he covered the largest guerrilla offensive of the war, describing it as having left both Salvadoran and U.S. officials “Caught With Their Pants Down.”
In 1990 in The Village Voice, Frank implicated the-then Salvadoran army chief in ordering the recent Jesuit murders –three years before the commander was so accused by a United Nations Truth Commission. Smyth co-wrote with Riordan Roett, Dialogue and Armed Conflict: Negotiating the Civil War in El Salvador, and with Tom Gibb, El Salvador: Is Peace Possible?. The latter was the first to make the case to cut military aid by 50 percent as leverage to facilitate negotiations, a step implemented by Congress six months later.
Smyth covered the 1991 Gulf War from Amman Jordan. Afterward, he covered an Iraqi opposition conference in Beirut, Lebanon before crossing into northern Iraq to embed with Kurdish guerrillas, reporting for CBS News, The Economist and The Village Voice. The Voice nominated him for a Pulitzer Prize for Meritorious Public Service for his coverage of the post-Gulf War anti-Saddam uprisings. Frank along with two photojournalists including Alain Buu went missing for 18 days after being captured by Iraqi forces. By then, Iraqi soldiers had already captured and executed Frank’s colleague, photojournalist Gad Gross, along with an armed Kurdish guerrilla, Bakhtiar Abdel-al-Rahman. He later wrote about the experience in “The Chance to Cry.”
Later in 1991, Frank wrote “Who Killed Guatemala’s Leading Anthropologist?” in the Village Voice. Based in Guatemala through 1992, he reported on land clashes and other human rights abuses for outlets including The Christian Science Monitor. In 1993, he documented Colombia’s Cali cartel’s expansion into Guatemala in The Washington Post. A year later, in the Village Voice, he documented the violent displacement of peasants to build the clandestine runways of a cocaine syndicate tied to the Guatemalan Army. In 1995, in The Wall Street Journal, Smyth documented the Clinton administration’s cover up surrounding the Good Friday murder of Guatemala’s chief justice, Epaminondas González Dubón, that stopped the extradition of an Army officer wanted in a separate case over DEA-brought charges.
In 1994, on the eve of the Rwandan genocide, Smyth broke the role of France in providing arms and military advisors to Rwanda’s already abusive ruling clique, as author of the Human Rights Watch report Arming Rwanda. Days into the carnage, he wrote “French Guns, Rwandan Blood” in The New York Times. Frank and co-author Stephen D. Goose received a Project Censored award for “Arming Genocide in Rwanda” in Foreign Affairs. Smyth has twice been interviewed on National Public Radio’s “Fresh Air” program, talking about Iraq and Rwanda.
Earlier the same year Frank wrote “Box of Pain” in The New Republic about Grateful Dead fans given long sentences for LSD sales. Smyth managed to gain access to a 1994 National Rifle Association board meeting, revealing in The Village Voice the start of a long internecine war that helped shape the organization. In 1995, one month after the Oklahoma City bombing, he exposed neo-Nazis of the National Alliance, whose leader had influenced the bomber, quietly recruiting on the NRA convention floor. Frank’s Washington Post piece on NRA firebrand and conspiracy theorist Neal Knox, “Gunning for His Enemies,” was later cited in a New York Times lead editorial. His work on Rwanda and Colombia, respectively, was referenced or cited in two more New York Times lead editorials.
In the mid-1990s Smyth worked in Colombia and obtained U.S. Defense Department and Colombian documents to show the CIA and other U.S. agencies helped reorganize Colombian military intelligence to clandestinely run paramilitary death squads, as revealed in the 1996 Human Rights Watch report “Colombia’s Killer Networks.” The same year, Frank provided U.S. military documents to Amnesty International showing 12 out of 13 abusive Colombian military units had received U.S. training or arms; these documents were soon cited in Congress to help pass the Leahy Law. In 1996, in The Washington Post, Smyth established that the FBI sketch artist, Jean Boylan, who had outed others, believed Sister Diana Ortiz when she said that “Alejandro,” whom Boylan drew based on Ortiz’s description, was an American agent who had tortured her inside a Guatemalan military prison.
In 1997, Frank wove his own Italian great-grandfather’s military experience a century before on the African Horn into his chronicling of a road trip across Eritrea to report on anti-Khartoum guerrillas over the border in Sudan. A year later, during the U.N. weapons inspection crisis over Iraq, Smyth wrote “Playing the Iran Card” in The Village Voice, and “We Need More Than Missiles to Oust Saddam” in The Washington Post. The same year, after the East Africa U.S. embassy bombings, he teamed up with terrorism expert Peter Bergen. Their story in The New Republic–based on separate reporting in Sudan and Afghanistan–was among the first to suggest that Osama bin Laden was behind the simultaneous U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. Frank and another colleague, Jason Vest, wrote a Voice piece about the al-Qaeda leader later heralded as “Bin Laden three years before 9/11.”
Another co-author, Dan Connell, and Frank documented the origins of Africa’s “New Leaders” in 1998 in Foreign Affairs. (They were wrong, however, in predicting they would remain allied instead of warring with each other.) Frank in The New Republic established the incident–a border-area clash killing Eritrean soldiers and officers–that sparked the Horn War between Eritrea and Ethiopia. He later wrote “Infallible Nation?” about once promising Eritrea’s turn to a totalitarian state.
Automobile sent Smyth in 1998 to cover “Heroes of the Revolution” or the Cuban mechanics who keep classic American cars running without spare parts. In Salon.com he later wrote a Letter from Havana about the Communist regime’s new tolerance of emerging gay culture, and spreading corruption throughout the island.
Frank’s 1999 piece in IntellectualCapital.com, “The Genocide Doctrine,” over Kosovo was later republished in the book William J. Clinton. Smyth contributed two chapters involving human rights abuses in Iraq during the Gulf War to Crimes of War: What the Public Should Know.
In 2000 Frank became Washington Representative of the Committee to Protect Journalists. At the same time, he worked in Colombia for the Washington-based International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. In 2001 Smyth wrote CPJ’s investigative report on Colombian paramilitary attacks against journalists, “Bad Press.” He later wrote in Newsday about the Bush administration’s attempts to censor the homemade video implicating bin Laden in 9/11 attacks. In 2002 in The American Prospect, Smyth wrote ““Saddam’s Real Opponents” later republished in The Iraq War Reader.
On behalf of CPJ, Smyth testified before a joint House/Senate committee hearing about press freedom in Central Asia, a Senate committee terrorism hearing where he spoke against the CIA posing as press (a case he previously made as a freelance journalist in a New York Times op-ed), and the Helsinki Commission on press freedom abuses in Tunisia and Morocco.
Smyth wrote “Iraq’s Forgotten Majority” in The New York Times in October 2002, or less than six months before the U.S.-led invasion, becoming among the first observers to point out that most Iraqis are Shia Muslims who were likely to aspire to power in any post-Saddam Iraq. One month later, in Newsday, Frank challenged the Bush administration’s notion that Saddam and bin Ladin were allies, reporting Bin Laden had long derided Saddam as a false Muslim. On the eve of the invasion, he wrote “Iraq’s Eclipsed Red Star” about the longstanding enmity between Saddam’s Ba’athist regime and the Iraqi Communist Party.
After the U.S.-led invasion, Smyth wrote in The International Herald Tribune about the search for the remains of people including Gad Gross still missing in Iraq in the wake of the 1991 uprisings. Later, in the Los Angeles Times, Frank compared his witnessing of torture by Saddam’s guards with U.S. military interrogation and torture practices. In 2002, he received a National Press Photographers Association Special Citation for his leadership in journalist trauma awareness.
By 2003, Smyth also became CPJ’s Journalist Security Coordinator, writing a dangerous assignment guidebook later translated into Spanish and Arabic. In 2004, he wrote in The Texas Observer about a nonprofit “law enforcement” front group created by the NRA and others to influence elections. The following year, in The Texas Observer, Smyth quoted DEA officials finally acknowledging the sacrifice of Guatemala’s late chief justice González Dubón 11 years after his covered-up murder.
Frank wrote “The Congressman and the Dictator’s Daughter” about Illinois Rep. Jerry Weller’s conflict of interest as a member of a subcommittee for Latin America who was married to a powerful Guatemalan congresswoman in 2006 in the Chicago Reader. Smyth documented Congressman Weller’s undisclosed beachfront properties in Nicaragua in another Chicago Reader story, which, after being further pursued by the Chicago Tribune, led Weller to leave Congress.
In 2005, Frank, on behalf of CPJ, testified before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission about press freedom conditions in China. The following year, on World Press Freedom Day, Smyth spoke on Capitol Hill on behalf of CPJ at the inauguration of the Congressional Caucus for Freedom of the Press, before an address by the California Representative Adam Schiff, who founded the press freedom caucus and whose founding co-chair was then Illinois Congressman Mike Pence.
In Newsday Smyth wrote “A war ‘shock and awe’ didn’t win” about Iraq, and, among others, another piece about the fallout for Israel. In 2007 for CPJ Smyth wrote about the California Bay-area murder of “Local Newsman” Chauncey Bailey. Smyth blogged in The Hill to challenge the congresswoman, the Democrat Betty McCollum from St. Paul, Minnesota, over her praise for the brutal despot of Tunisia, President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, whose downfall later began the “Arab spring.”
Smyth wrote “El Salvador’s Cold War Martyrs” in 2009, pegged to the 20th anniversaries of the both the nation’s Jesuit murders and the fall of the Berlin Wall. He testified on impunity for crimes against the press in Latin America in 2009 before the member states of the Organization of American States. The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in 2010 published Smyth’s study, “Painting the Maya Red: Military Doctrine and Speech in Guatemala’s Genocidal Acts.” Harvard International Review published Frank’s piece about unsolved murders of journalists worldwide, “Murdering with Impunity.”
In 2011 Smyth left most of his duties at the Committee to Protect Journalists to become CPJ’s part-time Senior Advisor for Journalist Security. He blogged for CPJ about a court subpoena for raw footage taken for the environmental documentary Crude, and on whether news blackouts help or hurt hostages including journalists. Frank blogged for outlets including NiemanWatchdog.
He moderated panels at the Deutsche Welle Global Media Forum in Bonn including on Threats to Environmental Reporters, and Advocacy vs. Objectivity covering Human Rights. Smyth is the main author of CPJ’s Journalist Security Guide released in 2012, and since published in 11 languages including Spanish, French, Arabic, Russian, Somali and Chinese.
By late 2012 Smyth founded Global Journalist Security, training journalists and humanitarians operating in hostile environments around the world and within the United States. GJS is now among the most respected hostile environments training and consulting firms worldwide. Clients include major news organizations as well as leading health, development and relief groups. GJS, under Frank’s tutelage, helps freelance journalists, humanitarians and activists obtain affordable training in collaboration with nonprofit groups.
Smyth continues to report and break news. In January 2013, after the heartbreaking Sandy Hook school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, Mother Jones ran his story, “EXCLUSIVE: Unmasking the NRA’s Inner Circle,” showing a longtime NRA director and chairman of the NRA’s Nominating Committee for board elections was living in Newtown just a few miles from the school. One committee member serving under her was the CEO of the firearms consortium that made the AR-15 rifle used to kill children and educators inside the school. The “Lean Forward” MSNBC television network soon made Frank both an online and on-air contributor. The Society of Professional Journalists awarded him a Delta Sigma Chi award for National Magazine Investigative Reporting.
Today Smyth is GJS CEO. He serves on the Global Advisory Network for World Pulse, using media platforms to unite and empower women. Continuing to be a voice for journalists, Frank, in 2014, addressed the member states of the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva on a journalist safety panel with top U.N. human rights and free expression officials, arguing that the U.N. must finally adopt “plain language” and report “violations of the right to life” with “a clearer term like murder“–a policy the U.N. took six years to change. In 2015 in Vienna, he spoke and moderated a panel on Safety of Journalists before the member states of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
Smyth in 2015 took the lead for CPJ in criticizing the Obama administration and the Pentagon for producing a watershed Law of War manual that treated journalists as spies, leading the administration to change the objectionable language.
In 2016 in Nairobi, Frank participated in a conference on kidnapping-for-ransom hosted by the U.N. Counter-Terrorism Center. Later that year, in Wilmington, North Carolina, Smyth addressed security for environmental activists at the WaterKeepers Alliance after the murder of the Honduran advocate Berta Cáceres. He spoke at a Virginia Commonwealth University conference on Countering Violent Extremism about groups from Mexican drug traffickers to ISIS using violence as a tactic to communicate strength.
Frank addressed then-Presidential candidate Donald Trump’s incitement against journalists during a profile of GJS training by The Daily Show. In 2017, during President Trump’s first year in office, he spoke out on CNN against Trump’s remarks potentially endangering CNN and other journalists.
In 2017, Smyth spoke on an American Bar Association panel on international law and attacks against the press. He spoke at the U.N. headquarters in New York at the Media for Social Impact Summit on the potential for virtual reality to enhance training. In 2018, he spoke in Washington, D.C. on a panel addressing security for documentary filmmakers at a Double Exposure Investigative Film Festival. In 2019, Frank spoke in Miami on an American Bar Association Communications Law panel on the treatment of journalists and erosion of press freedoms. That fall he was a Logan Nonfiction resident fellow researching the NRA and the armed right. In 2020, he spoke in Orlando at the University of Central Florida Nicholson School of Communication and Media on “Communication Under Siege: The Story of Steven Sotloff.”
Frank’s book, The NRA: The Unauthorized History, was released by Flatiron March 31, 2020, and was reviewed in The New York Times and London Review of Books. He then wrote, among other NRA pieces, “The unsung war heroes of the National Rifle Association” in Stars and Stripes, and “Five myths about the National Rifle Association” in The Washington Post. Frank authored the Geneva-released report of UNESCO, Safety of Journalists Covering Protests – Preserving Freedom of the Press During Times of Civil Unrest. He revisited the war surrounding El Salvador’s Jesuit murders after the first conviction in Spain of a perpetrator.
In October, a week before the 2020 elections, Smyth wrote in The New Republic about the NRA “Myths Fueling the Armed Right.” In 2021, Frank in the N.Y. Daily News wrote in March, “The slope is not so slippery, actually: Dems must tackle disinformation about gun control head-on,” about the challenges facing Biden’s gun plan, and in May, “Holocaust, guns and the truth,” about how the NRA has spun history to advance gun rights. Frank appears prominently throughout the 90-minute documentary, “The Price of Freedom,” about the NRA that aired in September 2021 on CNN, and is up now on HBO Max.
On November 17, 2021, on the NRA’s sesquicentennial, Frank wrote in USA Today why today’s NRA leaders sidestepped their own organization’s 150th anniversary, burying the NRA’s British Royal roots to falsely claim the NRA was founded in support of the Second Amendment. In December, after the Oxford high shooting, he wrote in the N.Y. Daily News that gun reform was over for now, and how its adherents need to reach out to gun owners going ahead.
In 2022, after the Uvalde, Texas elementary school shooting, Frank wrote in Politico how the NRA is weak, but its ideology is stronger than ever. He appeared on the NYTimes podcast The Sway with Kara Swisher and the columnist Nicholas Kristof discussing gun reform options. Frank appeared on CNN with Abby Philip talking about the power of the ideology of gun rights. In 2023, Frank wrote “Record Imprisonments, Impunity for Murders: Can Press Freedom Watchdogs Even Keep Up?” in Harvard International Review.
Frank has taught journalism, global media, U.S. news history, and 20th century political and cultural history at American University and the Corcoran College of Art + Design. He is an alumnus of Boston College and the Johns Hopkins University Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies.
Frank’s CV is available upon request.