According to the back cover of Forbidden Truth, a bestseller published in France last fall and released in this country last week, a round of “secret diplomacy between the Bush administration and the Taliban” may have provoked Osama bin Laden into launching the September 11 attacks.
As proof, authors Jean-Charles Brisard and Guillaume Dasquié point to a July 2001 meeting of a UN initiative known as Six Plus Two, formed to discuss Afghanistan’s future and to offer incentives for building a Central Asian oil pipeline. The group that met in July included two former U.S. ambassadors, ostensibly chosen to float ideas that could not be traced to the U.S. government. At the meeting, according to one participant, one of the Americans informed the group, “Either you accept our offer of a carpet of gold, or we bury you under a carpet of bombs.” And when news of this unusual military threat reached bin Laden, the authors imply, he launched a preemptive strike on the U.S.
With an outrageous premise like that, it’s no wonder that chapter six of Forbidden Truth has been touted as the smoking gun that proves Bush’s indirect responsibility for 9-11—or that Nation Books, the publishing arm of The Nation, has just published the book in English. What’s really interesting is that after The Nation‘s hard-nosed Washington editor, David Corn, denounced the authors as conspiracy theorists, Nation Books neatly excised the smoking-gun allegations from the text.
The smoking-gun claim first appeared in the foreword of the book’s original edition, in which the authors dubbed the 9-11 attacks “a foreseeable” and “tragic” “outcome” of the UN initiative. But the foreword in the Nation Books edition merely states that the 9-11 attacks were “possibly the outcome” of the UN initiative, and soberly calls for “further investigation.” A similar text massage was performed at the end of chapter six.
Toning down of this sort is standard practice for conscientious editors, but in this case it’s the equivalent of buying a manuscript that states unequivocally that the CIA killed John F. Kennedy—and then publishing a book that speculates that the CIA might have killed John Kennedy.
Asked if he believes the central thesis of Forbidden Truth, Nation publisher Victor Navasky said, “Based on our reading of the book, the authors made some adjustments, so what may have been a thesis is now a speculation. I’m not a conspiracy theorist. I believe Oswald killed Kennedy and probably did it by himself, but I think it’s important to raise questions.”
And no one raised louder questions than Corn. A few months ago, after reading a preliminary translation of the book, Corn wrote an internal memo critiquing it and opposing its publication. In May, he wrote a piece for The Nation that debunked what he calls the 9-11 conspiracy theorists. Describing Forbidden Truth, Corn later wrote, “I have rarely seen such shoddy and lazy journalism,” adding that the book is “almost entirely unsourced” and that the authors gave “no sense that they had interviewed any single player in their tale.” For The Nation to promote such a book is “just plain exploitative,” he told the Los Angeles Times, which first reported the dispute. Among other things, Corn is not convinced that the diplomats in question were speaking for the Bush administration.
Corn declined to comment on The Nation’s internal affairs. But when informed that Truth has turned to speculation in the English edition, he said, “I don’t know whether to find it heartening or curious that an essential point of the book seems to have been changed. In the edition I read, the authors said the 9-11 attacks were a direct result of these talks, but now the book says they may have been the direct result of these talks. I still have my doubts about any reporting team that made the first highly provocative statement without being able to come close to supporting it.”
To be sure, one man’s scandal is another man’s brilliant career. Nation Books editorial director Carl Bromley says his goal is to be a “progressive popular publisher,” offering books with “political urgency.” Because the imprint is part of the nonprofit Nation Institute, Bromley has the luxury of concentrating on building an audience, which he describes as “the kind of people who read the Guardian online.”
About Truth, Bromley said, “I worked very hard on the book, and I have no problem publishing it. It’s not a conspiracy-theory book.” Asked if he would have published it if he did not believe it, Bromley said, “I’m sure there are corporate publishers that do that, but I won’t publish something if I think it’s a load of bullshit. I was raised as a good Catholic boy and a Communist, so I’m not allowed to lie.”
Bromley said he had been intrigued since he read about the book in the Guardian and Le Monde Diplomatique. “Those for me are the most credible news sources.” Then in November 2001, the Voice‘s James Ridgeway wrote that the authors “are big in the French spook world.” Bromley recalled, “That alerted me that these guys aren’t kooks. These are writers telling a story that really needed an American audience.”
By March, Bromley had snapped up the North American rights to the book and begun canvassing people to review it. “David represented one extreme, while others were very enthusiastic,” he said. “The clincher was a very serious and tough critic who is not a conspiracy theorist and hadn’t been following the story. We gave him the book cold. He had some disagreements, but overall he felt the book was important and had to be published.” Bromley declined to name the mystery vetter, but sources identify him as Scott Sherman, a contributing editor at The Columbia Journalism Review. Sherman responded, “I was asked for my confidential opinion and I gave it. ”
Then there was the fact checker. “With a book of this kind we have to be quite scrupulous,” Bromley explained. “Some of the charges in the Saudi Arabia chapters are quite strong, so we employed a fact checker. The poor guy spent two months living and breathing this book. He must have been psychologically damaged.”
Bromley praises co-author Jean-Charles Brisard, 32, who worked with him on the edit. (Apparently it was Guillaume Dasquié who wrote the “secret diplomacy” chapters, while Brisard was responsible for the confessions of former FBI official John P. O’Neill that appear in the prologue and for the study of Saudi Arabian financial networks that forms the second half of the book.)
Brisard appears to be spoiling for a fight. In a letter posted on the Nation Web site last week, he called Corn’s Nation article “irrelevant” and dubbed Corn a “nonprofessional on these issues.” His own credentials include running Vivendi’s corporate intelligence unit and writing a 1997 report on Al Qaeda networks at the behest of the French government. (Did I mention that Brisard often shows up on Salon?)
“I like David and I don’t want to get into a pissing match with him,” said Bromley. Navasky praised Corn’s “expertise in the intelligence area,” adding, “There’s nothing unusual about the fact that two authors disagree about something. You’re talking about a magazine that has published Cockburn and Hitchens for 20 years.”