Will Alhurra Cover-Up Probe Lead to Karen Hughes?

When Ken Tomlinson calls for an investigation into the “cover-up” of U.S. Arabic broadcasting outrages, it is clear he understands where that probe would lead: to Karen Hughes, under secretary of State for public diplomacy and a long-time member of President George W. Bush’s inner circle.

In his last months as chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees U.S. international broadcasting, Tomlinson clashed repeatedly with Hughes and her close ally, Democrat Joaquin Blaya, who chaired the BBG subcommittee on Middle East broadcasting.

It was Tomlinson who late last year first raised concerns over the new direction taken by Alhurra, the Arabic-language television news service under new news director Larry Register, a former CNN International executive.

Suddenly, America’s television voice to the Middle East was featuring live hate-filled speeches by terrorist leaders. Incredibly, the station interrupted regular programming to air, for more than an hour, a live speech by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah who asserted, “The only place where bullets should be is the chest of … the Israeli enemy.”

The station later featured an interview with an al Qaeda operative who declared that 9/11 had rubbed “America’s nose in the dust.”

Probably most shocking of all was Alhurra’s coverage of the infamous December 2006 Holocaust denial conference in Tehran, of which the U.S. station reported straight-facedly: “Participants in the forum said evidence of the Holocaust is weak and asked Israel to provide evidence that proves its occurrence.”

Exposing these shocking details of Alhurra under Register was investigative journalist Joel Mowbray, whose series of Wall Street Journal columns and related blogs brought the scandal to national attention. One Mowbray article explained what was behind Register’s moves: “Within weeks of becoming news director, Mr. Register put his own stamp on the network. The ban on turning the airwaves over to terrorists was lifted. For those who had chafed under Mr. Register’s predecessor — who curbed the desire of many on staff to make Alhurra more like al-Jazerra — the new era was welcomed warmly. ‘Everybody feels emboldened. Register changed the atmosphere around here,’ notes one staffer.”

Tomlinson demanded a board investigation into Alhurra news coverage. Hughes and Blaya led the rest of the board in rejecting the idea.

In retrospect, Hughes’s defense of what was happening at Alhurra is startling. Answering questions from skeptical members of Congress, Hughes declared: “I want to say that I have heard rave reviews of Larry Register from people across the Middle East about his knowledge. We just had Joaquin Blaya, who is one of my colleagues on the Broadcasting Board of Governors, travel to the Middle East and again heard very high praise. . . . We believe that Alhurra is moving in an encouraging direction.”

The defense of Register began to unravel, however, during a disastrous appearance by Blaya before a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee. Chairman Gary Ackerman (D.-N.Y.) was incredulous that Register had been given the key news post despite the fact that he does not understand Arabic. “If they [Alhurra’s editorial leadership] don’t speak the language, how can they know what’s going on?” he asked.

Then Blaya clearly wilted under questioning from the subcommittee’s ranking Republican, Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana. From the hearing transcript:

“Rep. Pence: Can you account for why it took five months for you to speak to what you now describe as a mistake? When did this come to your attention?

Mr. Blaya: This was brought to the board’s attention in December. We were dealing with this issue as soon as it occurred.

Rep. Pence: Let me ask very specifically: Were it not for the investigative reporting [this spring] done by one Joel Mowbray, would the board have known about this inexcusable reporting of the Holocaust denial conference?

Mr. Blaya: Actually we did learn the day after it occurred. It was reported to us by [Alhurra President Brian] Conniff.

Mr. Conniff: (Off mike.)

Mr. Blaya: Oh. That was Nasrallah. I’m sorry.

Rep. Pence: But were there — I mean, was it essentially from the press reporting that I referred to that you learned about the reporting on this Holocaust denial conference?

Mr. Conniff: One of the board members requested some DVDs of selected dates. And when I reviewed the DVDs, that’s when I discovered it.”

The day after the hearing, Tomlinson wrote Blaya and Conniff a letter with copies to Hughes and other board members. “I fear there are problems with some of your responses to questions at the subcommittee hearing that you will need to address,” he warned. Tomlinson went on to note:

“In his testimony, Conniff indicates he learned of the Holocaust denial conference when a board member requested the DVDs of ‘selected dates.’ I made such a request on February 13.

“Yet on February 17, Conniff responded to a communication from me about the Nasrallah speech by charging: ‘I am concerned that your memo mistakes, exaggerates and takes out of context the facts. . . . Based on the one broadcast of one speech, you are asking the board and whoever else reads your memo to conclude that Alhurra’s [new] editorial policy is diametrically opposed to our journalistic tradition. That conclusion is completely unsupportable by the facts.’

“Surely [Conniff] would not have made this assertion about my concerns had he known about the even more outrageous coverage of the Holocaust-denial conference.”

Echoing words that helped unravel the Watergate cover-up, Tomlinson demanded: “It is important that we know what the Alhurra leadership knew about this coverage and when did they know it.”

He believes the same applies to the State Department. On May 8 at his daily press briefing, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack, no doubt reflecting Under Secretary Hughes, said in response to questioning, “Larry Register is doing a pretty good job, a very good job.”

But by early June, Register was out — apparently the result of mounting outrage from congressional appropriators over what had occurred under his leadership.

Tomlinson is a well-known conservative who in his five years in office earned the reputation as a Bush Administration loyalist. Still, he believes Congress should pursue the cover-up.

“Why did it take us months to discover what had occurred inside Alhurra?” asks Tomlinson. Then he tells Human Events: “It is clear there was an attempt at covering all this up. Now we should get to the bottom of that cover-up — no matter how high it takes us.”