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Joel Whitney: Following a Lie

October 16, 2008

“Leadership is not only a matter of courage,” writes Daniel Johnson in this month’s issue of the London-based Standpoint Magazine, “but also of honesty. Both are rare.” Indeed. By nature if not nurture, Standpoint‘s Founding Editor Johnson should know something about both. His legendary father, Paul Johnson, wrote for and edited the prestigious British magazine The New Statesman, and won a Presidential Medal of Freedom from George W. Bush. With so much to live up to, Johnson the Younger stepped out from his father’s shadow in a big way this year, not only founding Standpoint in May, with a mission statement that reads, “In a market swamped by the journalistic equivalent of fast food, Standpoint hopes to offer the discerning reader a feast of great writing.” But Johnson is also partly responsible for one of the most dishonest smears against Senator Barack Obama to have appeared this campaign season, a January article in the recently deceased New York Sun that is the hallmark of journalistic dishonesty. If the article had been left merely in the Sun‘s fading archives, it would be one thing. But it also appeared in Jerome Corsi’s book smearing the Democratic presidential candidate with half-truths and disturbing omissions. And this week The Washington Times resurrected it on behalf of a desperate, mudslinging Republican candidacy.

In his January 10, 2008, article “The Kenya Connection,” Mr. Johnson writes of Senator Barack Obama’s ties to Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga. Senator Obama toured Kenya in August 2006. Noting a real connection between Obama and Odinga (the two are also members of the three-million strong Luo tribe of Kenyans), Johnson proceeds to cite a memorandum of understanding between Odinga and Kenya’s National Muslim Leaders Forum (NAMLEF). Odinga’s campaign memo with NAMLEF was signed on August 29, 2007, while Odinga sought the office of prime minister. The signing of the memo was known by Kenyans, even if the items in the memo would become distorted by foul play.

In November, a version of the memo appeared publicly. In it, Odinga promises NAMLEF to rename Muslim regions of Kenya and to enact Sharia law in those regions. Suddenly, it seemed, the New York Sun had nabbed the would-be Democratic candidate for president in an act of complicity with Islamic terrorist treachery. The problem? The document Johnson referred to was fake.

When the government transparency site Wikileaks posted the Sharia memo on its site, on November 14, 2007, it prominently listed the memo as a likely forgery. Either Johnson missed or ignored the warning on the document’s description page, which read, “There are some reasons to suspect a frame up. Readers, please investigate.” The memo also appeared on the Kenyan Evangelical Alliance (KEA) website, which is likely where Johnson got it. (If you click on the link to the MOU on this site today, you get a blank page that reads: 01/01/1970.)

In his article, Johnson cites none other than Kenya’s despotic President Kibaki, in the wake of Obama’s visit to Kenya, as calling Senator Obama a “stooge” for Odinga (the equivalent of Nixon calling someone investigating Watergate dishonest—i.e. projection). Pouncing on the fake memo, Johnson ends his piece with all the public bluster he could rouse, “If Mr. Obama did not know about Mr. Odinga’s electoral deal with the Kenyan Islamists when he offered his support, then he should have known. If he did know, then he is guilty of lending the prestige of his office to America’s enemies in the global war on terror. We need to know exactly what Mr. Obama knew about Mr. Odinga, and precisely when he knew it.”

On June 8, 2008, the real Odinga-NAMLEF memo appeared on Wikileaks, accompanied by the names and signatures of witnesses to its signing. Importantly, Odinga had said all along that the real memo was nothing more than an agreement to rectify discriminatory policies and neglect against Kenyan Muslims. Just like Kibaki himself had done in 2002, the would-be prime minister had merely signed a memo promising to help Muslims overcome discriminatory policies and to seek release for Kenyan Muslims who’d been illegally rendered to Guantanamo and parts of Africa. The memo also promises to budget more funds to Muslim provinces that had long been areas of neglect and poverty. NAMELEF’s signatory to the memo, Sheik Abdullah Abdi even appeared in November in a Kenyan television news segment in which he describes the more moderate memo as the one he signed, adding soberly, “Muslim Kenyans aren’t looking for a handout … but for the same opportunity as any Kenyan.”

But if Johnson’s story lost its basis in fact with this new memo, it didn’t lose its legs. Melanie Phillips fell for the fake Sharia memo in the Spectator UK as well, actually beating Johnson’s dateline by four days. A slew of copycat stories peppered the Internet’s conservative and Africa news sites over the winter and into the New Year.

Perhaps around the same time as Phillips and Johnson were reporting it, and U.S. media were playing speeches of Reverend Wright, the false memo leaped into the manuscript that would become Jerome Corsi’s anti-Democrat bestseller, the factually challenged Obama Nation, which spent at least six weeks on The New York Times Bestseller list. Corsi begins Chapter 4 by denying Raila Odinga his religious freedom the way American Republicans have done to Senator Obama: “Although Odinga professes to be an Anglican Christian…” Corsi next cites a memo between Odinga and NAMELEF’s Sheik Abdullah Abdi. A master of decoys, Corsi opens this discussion with a feint toward objectivity, by writing, “a Kenyan television news report showed a second version of the document, which may have superior claims to be the authentic document.” (p 107) Corsi does not describe this memo.

He then proceeds to treat Odinga with gloves and protective goggles, while painting his corrupt opponent Kibaki as an underdog hero. Corsi refers to the KEA site as the source of the document, and writes, “the mention of Senator Obama [as an Odinga supporter] has ignited fears in the same Christian missionaries working in Kenya that have expressed concern over the now-authenticated memorandum of understanding Odinga signed with Sheik Abdullah Abdi.”

What authentication could Corsi be referring to? He doesn’t say.

Corsi continues, “Credible sources in Kenya [which he does not name] believe the documents should not be dismissed without further investigation.” Note that sly use of the plural. Dryly rehashing the Sharia provisions, Corsi ends the chapter on a faux conciliatory note by calling these matters “loose ends.” In an article with the right-wing WorldNet Daily, Corsi clarifies, “There is nothing on the record to indicate Obama ever withdrew his support from Odinga, even after Odinga signed the agreement with the Muslims in Kenya.” Indeed.

The New York Sun, whose editors I wrote several times before the newspaper folded, chose not to comment, amend or retract. (With all in-house boasting of an alleged “surge of support” they received before folding, one would think integrity, or some sense of posterity, would inspire them to correct this lie.) But could Johnson’s piece have been the authentication Corsi notes?

In a telephone interview earlier this month, Johnson protested that his Sun piece was “merely an opinion piece,” adding “there are still legitimate questions to ask about Obama’s connections with Kenya.” But what about the fake memo he reported on? “I’m a columnist, not an expert on Kenya.” Finally, he added, “Why are you so interested in hounding me rather than investigating the relationship [between Obama and Odinga]?”

To be sure, the Muslim-Christian tensions in Kenya that the Sharia memo exploits weren’t fabricated by Johnson, Phillips or Corsi, or by The Washington Times’s Mark Hyman, who resurrected the “connection” in a piece this past Sunday. The struggle to wrangle rights for Kenya’s 10% Muslim minority has resulted not just in moderate ploys like memos with politicians seeking to end rendition. In December, The New York Times reported that “Radical imams have preached violence against Westerners, attacked the Kenyan government as the lackey of the United States and Israel and called for the implementation of Shariah.”

But as far as Odinga’s ties to them, evidence besides the forged memo has yet to appear in any of their articles or work. And the exploitation of those tensions to simultaneously discredit two bridge-building leaders from two countries seems not only counterproductive; it ought to be transparent, and met with a healthy skepticism by any journalist worth his father’s mettle.

In fact, according to WorldNet Daily, which lavished high praise on Corsi’s book, the Odinga-Obama ties cited in Obama Nation led Odinga to skip the Democratic National Convention in Denver, which he had earlier planned to attend. I’m not sure what good that does except isolate the East African country as it looks for allies to help end corruption, religious violence and tamp down Muslim extremism. If, through his new magazine, Johnson seeks to be a leader in the world of journalism, perhaps he should heed his own words. Honesty. Rare indeed.

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