Mouth of the Border


They say Mexico City can turn into an obsession, which must be why New York Times bureau chief Sam Dillon is staying down there after he gives up his post. Ginger Thompson, the new bureau chief, will show up in time for the July elections. In September, she will be joined by Tim Weiner, the new Times Mexico correspondent. Dillon and his wife, Times correspondent Julia Preston, are going on leave to write a book on Mexico; their next assignment has not been announced.

Weiner, 43, is better known than 35-year-old Thompson, but only because he has been at the Times longer (he arrived in 1992; she in 1998). Indeed, the female half of this team has a few things the man does not: She is fluent in Spanish and has lived in Mexico before, when she covered Latin America for the Baltimore Sun.

After reporting on Cuba for the Chicago Tribune, Thompson joined the Times‘s Metro desk in 1998. (Dillon once told an interviewer that the Times likes to bring new foreign correspondents to New York, where they can be taught to obey.) Indeed, soon after Thompson arrived, she flew off to Mexico, to fill in when Dillon and Preston went on vacation. Call her obscure, but she got the Mexico job on the merits.

No matter which one’s on top, these two are a dream team. Weiner is an aggressive investigative reporter whose exposé of the Pentagon’s secret budget won a Pulitzer for the Philadelphia Inquirer. After joining the Times‘s D.C. bureau, he remained on the intelligence beat until 1999, when he was assigned to Congress. But overseas is where he wants to be. Three years ago, he could have transferred to Moscow, but he declined, because he and his wife, Kate Doyle, had just had their first child. Doyle is a Latin American expert, so for them, Mexico is the right place at the right time.

A brief history of the Mexico bureau chiefs: Perhaps the best known is Alan Riding, whose stint in the early 1980s was marked by skeptical coverage of U.S. involvement in Central America. Larry Rohter, who became chief in the late 1980s, was especially prolific. In the early 1990s, Tim Golden charged into town to cover the downfall of President Salinas and to uncover massive corruption. Then came Dillon.

Dillon’s politics are inscrutable, which some ascribe to the fact that he cut his teeth covering Central America in the early 1980s, an era when many reporters became scrupulously neutral. But Dillon has not shied away from scandal. In February 1997, Dillon and another reporter exposed the links between two Mexican governors and the drug trade.

The authorities tapped Dillon’s phone, filed a criminal libel action against him, and threatened to put him in jail, pending trial. Then, in October 1997, the Mexican attorney general announced he would not bring charges. The next spring, a Times team led by Dillon won a Pulitzer for its coverage of drug corruption in Mexico. All the exposure led some to complain that the Times had done too much drug reporting, which has become something of a litany at the Times.

Insiders say that executive editor Joe Lelyveld has always been committed to Mexico coverage, and he and Bill Keller are exceptionally smart on the subject. But Mexico 2000 is a monster assignment. Thompson and Weiner are headed for a country where the Times counts, elections can be seismic, and there are deep, unfolding stories to be told. May they get all the support they deserve.

Smug Warrior

In last week’s New Yorker, Seymour Hersh delivered a solid hit to General Barry McCaffrey, the U.S. drug czar. Hersh’s bombshell was this: During a 1991 cease-fire in the Gulf War, McCaffrey’s 24th Infantry Division launched an unprovoked attack on retreating Iraqis, “killing not only . . . soldiers, but civilians and children as well.” Killing civilians or firing on retreating troops without provocation is a war crime. McCaffrey claims his troops acted in self-defense; named sources say they did not.

McCaffrey calls the charge “comical,” but what’s really funny is that his effort to trash the story has backfired completely. Weeks ago, McCaffrey’s office organized a counteroffensive, persuading the general’s supporters to write letters complaining about Hersh to New Yorker editor David Remnick. The Hersh complaints were forwarded to Washington Post media reporter Howard Kurtz, whose April 18 story gave them a ridiculously sympathetic spin.

According to New Yorker insiders, instead of convincing Remnick to kill the story, the Post only served to “smoke out new sources,” who contacted Hersh with corroborating details. In another preemptive strike, McCaffrey’s office wrote to several human rights activists, asking them to help “discredit the Hersh article.”

Insiders say McCaffrey went ballistic on May 21, the day the story was released. That Sunday and Monday, his supporters informed TV producers that Hersh’s sources would recant; at the same time they were “calling sources like crazy,” ordering them to do so. So far, some generals claim to have been misquoted, but no source has changed his story. Indeed, CBS Pentagon correspondent David Martin talked to an operations officer and an intelligence officer whom he calls Hersh’s most important witnesses. Both repeated what they told Hersh: There was no justification for the attack.

McCaffrey had another bogus defense: He claimed Hersh was “recycling” old charges that had already been put to rest. It’s true that in 1991, the army allowed McCaffrey’s unit to investigate the incident and exonerate itself of wrongdoing—but how convincing is a self-investigation? That didn’t stop McCaffrey from going on two TV shows last week, waving a copy of the September 8, 1991, Savannah Morning News, as if it “proved” his troops had been cleared. But, while the paper did report that the army had cleared itself, it offered no conclusions of its own.

Rexanna Lester, the News‘s managing editor in 1991, was surprised to see McCaffrey trot out the story in his own defense. “We certainly didn’t exonerate the guy,” she says, noting that, at the time, the News lacked the reporting power to do its own investigation. Lester, now executive editor, did a double take when she saw McCaffrey on national TV. “I said, ‘What is he doing?’ I guess he was grasping at straws.”

PR dictates that when you’re under attack, concede nothing. So it’s no surprise that last week the White House and the army backed the drug czar 100 percent. On May 18, McCaffrey’s spokesman told me the story had “deservedly died on the vine.” But, the same day, The New York Times called on the government to open a new investigation, and, this week, Newsweek and ABC World News have weighed in with follow-up stories.

It’s heartening to see the media challenge wartime propaganda, even nine years after the fact. But let’s hope Hersh’s coup triggers more investigation of McCaffrey’s drug war as well.

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