Official Sources, Western Diplomats and Other Voices from the Mission

On the post-Cold War era, ethnic rivalry may have replaced ideology as the most likely cause of conflict, but while all else changes, one journalistic habit picked up during the past four decades will, in all likelihood, persist — the habit of relying heavily on the mission, as the U.S. embassy is known, for assessments and information. In an increasingly unfamiliar world, in fact, the temptation to do so will be even stronger.

What’s wrong with this? A close look at coverage of the last of the Cold-War conflicts — the civil war in El Salvador — shows that all too often such reliance results in distorted news.

Following the November 1989 murder of six Jesuit intellectuals, their housekeeper, and the housekeeper’s daughter, U.S. embassy officials in San Salvador told Newsweek that they had intelligence information indicating that rightist leader Roberto D’Aubuisson, long identified with El Salvador’s death squads, had been planning to kill the priests. The claim was based on an alleged CIA report. The officials said that, on the night before the murders, D’Aubuisson had told advisers that something had to be done about the Jesuits. Newsweek ran the story as an “exclusive” on December 11, 1989.

But it was later shown in court that D’Aubuisson had nothing to do with the murders. And except for the mission officials who spoke to Newsweek, almost every other Western diplomat in the country told reporters — from the start — that the Salvadoran military, not D’Aubuisson, was most likely responsible.

No corroboration of the alleged CIA report pointing to D’Aubuisson has ever been provided, not even to the presiding Salvadoran court or to the U.S. congressional task force investigating the Jesuit murders. In fact, the report may very well have been a fabrication designed to deflect attention from the Salvadoran military, which was then receiving nearly a quarter million dollars a day in U.S. aid.

Reporters in El Salvador frequently received information and assessments from the mission. And correspondents who have covered El Salvador say that editors in almost all U.S. media have tended to demand a far lower standard of evidence for information obtained from embassy officials than for that obtained from other sources. For example, while claims by political activists of any stripe would rarely be published without at least two additional sources of confirmation, information coming from U.S. officials was frequently run without any additional confirmation. “Don’t worry, I got it from the embassy,” was usually enough to put an editor at ease.

The assumption here is that political activists have a political agenda, while American officials do not. This ignore that fact that U.S. embassy officials in El Salvador were engaged in what they themselves called the largest and most significant American military endeavor in the period since the Vietnam war. The assumption led to inaccurate and misleading reports.

For example, on July 30, 1989, New York Times correspondent Lindsey Gruson wrote an article headlined “With Training and New Tactics, Salvador’s Army Gains on Rebels.” The story’s nut quote was from a “senior American official” who said: “The F.M.L.N. [leftist guerrillas] can still mass troops, carry out actions, and inflict casualties, but not with its previous success. . .These offensives now come at greater cost and achieve less. In contrast to the early 1980s, many guerrilla actions are now a draw or outright defeat.”

While the U.S. embassy was claiming in briefing papers that the insurgency “is now in a period of decline and frustration,” many other observers, including non-American diplomats, believed that the war was stalemated — at best. Indeed, in November, less than four months after Gruson’s piece appeared, the F.M.L.N. launched its strongest sustained offensive of the war, taking over much of the capital and other major cities for up to ten days. American officials were taken completely by surprise. So were most American readers.

Another problem for reporters in El Salvador was attribution. For example, in background briefings given in early 1991, William Walker, U.S. ambassador to El Salvador, told reporters that U.N. mediator Alvaro de Soto was biased toward leftist guerrillas, unprofessional as a diplomat, and ineffective. But when speaking in San Salvador, Walker demanded that he be referred to only as an unidentified Western diplomat, giving the impression that his view of the U.N. mediator was representative of that of the diplomatic corps at large. In fact, most other major Western diplomats in San Salvador considered the veteran Peruvian mediator to be not only highly competent, professional, and fair, but the right man for the job.

The term “Western diplomat” is meant to inspire confidence in readers. It implies that the source is an experienced diplomat of some stature, is knowledgeable about the country in question, and has access to a wide boy of both public and official information. But in El Salvador, reporters sometimes allowed the term to be misused.

New York Times correspondent James LeMoyne found ways to deal with this problem, using attributions such as “a top official whose country has an active interest in El Salvador.” The reader was thus alerted that this diplomat was not a neutral observer. Another solution was to follow a debatable statement — uttered by American officials but attributed only to unidentified “Western diplomats” — with something like “But many non-American Western diplomats disagree.”

Unfortunately, reporters and editors tend to be more interested in securing access to embassy sources than in substantiating embassy claims. The El Salvador experience suggests that strict standards of evidence and uniform rules of attribution should be applied to all sources.