On Buzzfeed’s McCarthyite smears against Korean Americans

This week I wrote to Buzzfeed editor Ben Smith about a story his publication ran on July 11 that smeared several Korean American peace and community groups as “fronts” for North Korea, using as its source a well-known fabricator who has spent the past three years red-baiting me as well.

I asked Smith to correct the story and run my letter as a way to ameliorate the damage Buzzfeed has done by printing such garbage. Yesterday I was informed by Buzzfeed’s “World News Editor” Hayes Brown that not only would Buzzfeed not issue a correction, but that it would not print my letter.

The fact that Ben Smith apparently approved this decision disappointed me. He knows me and is familiar with my journalism. “It was a pleasure to get to know your work, and I look forward to reading you more,” he emailed me in 2014 when we were discussing a potential project that never came to fruition. For him to allow McCarthyite smears to stand, even to someone he knows, speaks volumes about his commitment to journalistic ethics and integrity.

I was not surprised, however, by Brown’s response and actions as the editor of the story. I recently obtained a resume showing that Brown worked for at least two years for one of the country’s largest intelligence contractors, SRA International, as a “Cyber Policy Analyst” for the Department of Homeland Security (SRA is now known as CSRA following its merger with CSC, one of the National Security Agency’s most important contractors). During his time with SRA, Hayes held a “Top Secret-Active” security clearance. In his resume, he also claims to be a specialist on Asian Studies.

In my emails with Brown, I asked if his work as an intelligence contractor for DHS was relevant to his involvement with the Korea story. He rejected that idea, and downplayed his contractor role, as you will see in the emails below. I disagree and believe his previous job at SRA and DHS is relevant – highly so.

It is significant that he has never disclosed his top secret clearance in any of his biographical materials, and is typically described on his media sites as a mere “contractor.” Brown has also chosen not to disclose his security clearance or his work for SRA in articles about intelligence contractors, as in this 2013 piece from ThinkProgress (he did not reply to an email about this). 

As an editor, I’m sure Brown will appreciate the fact that I allowed him to respond to this post, in contrast to Buzzfeed‘s reprehensible decision not to seek comment from the individuals and organizations attacked in his Korea story. What follows is my full letter, as sent to Buzzfeed on July 13, and my emails with Brown last night.

To:                 Ben Smith and Hayes Brown

From:            Tim Shorrock, with comments from Gloria Steinem

Date:              July 13, 2016

The following is my response to an article that appeared in Buzzfeed News on July 11. I’m an author (“Spies for Hire”) who grew up in Seoul and Tokyo. I’ve been writing about Korea and East Asia for decades, including for The Nation. I wrote this after consulting with Christine Ahn, a Korean-American policy analyst and one of the founders of Women Cross DMZ, which is falsely characterized in the article as a “front” group for North Korea.

In “Meet North Korea’s Number One Fan In The United States,” published on July 11, 2016, you have allowed a known fabricator, Lawrence Peck, to smear several organizations founded by Korean-Americans with baseless, unsubstantiated charges of being “fronts” for the North Korean government of Kim Jong Un.

I’m writing to urge you to correct this article by stating clearly and unequivocally that Mr. Peck’s charge that Women Cross DMZ is a “front” for North Korea has no basis in fact and was printed without any evidence from Mr. Peck and no verification by your reporter Beimeng Fu and your national security editor Hayes Brown.

I have learned that Christine Ahn, the founder of Women Cross DMZ, spoke extensively to Ms. Fu, yet was given no opportunity to comment before Ms. Fu printed Mr. Peck’s false and defamatory allegations about her organization. I consider it serious journalistic malpractice to allow a questionable source to make false claims without giving the subjects of those charges an opportunity to respond.

The night the article appeared, I emailed Mr. Brown about this matter. He responded that Buzzfeed quoted Mr. Peck “because he’s presented himself as one of the few people looking into North Korean groups in the US, but [Buzzfeed] didn’t take his word as gospel…” He also noted that Buzzfeed made “sure to both note that Women Cross DMZ has on other occasions denied the sort of claims he made.”

These assertions are akin to allowing a source who’s “presented himself” as an expert on crime to accuse someone of a crime, and then saying the accused “denies” the accusation. The damage is done. Surely Mr. Brown –who I understand previously worked for a prominent national security contractor and has expertise in China and East Asia – can do better than this.

Despite Mr. Brown’s claims to the contrary, Ms. Fu’s entire piece hinges on Peck’s analysis and is framed by his paranoia of “pro-North Koreans” operating underground in the United States. The Korean-Americans Ms. Fu had the chance to observe are portrayed as shady operatives “under the radar on U.S. soil” when in fact Mr. Roh’s website, Minjok Tongshin, is publicly available on the web, and his meetings easily accessible to the public (incidentally, Mr. Roh’s views may be unpopular, but expressing his views on North Korea is protected speech in the United States).

In fact, there is nothing “under the radar” here, yet Ms. Fu, with the support of her editor, uses Peck’s broad brush analysis to falsely paint other groups, such as Nodutdol, as clandestine “pro-North Korea” organizations with no evidence whatsoever – except for Peck’s word. That is a travesty.

Mr. Peck, for your information, is a professional red-baiter and North Korea hater with no identifiable institutional support. He attacks anyone who believes in dialogue and citizen engagement with North Korea as “pro-North sympathizers” and worse. The engagement approach, as your editor should know, is endorsed by many prominent individuals, including Donald Gregg, the former CIA Station Chief in Seoul, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon (who told CBS News that Women Cross DMZ “was a a very good opportunity to help promote reconciliation between the two Koreas”) and even a few officials in the Obama administration.

Mr. Peck works closely, and coordinates his work, with the most radical right-wing groups in South Korea and within the extreme edges of the North Korean defector community. His primary audience is a core group of agitators in Seoul and Washington who seek regime change in North Korea and, like him, detest those who seek a diplomatic approach. He has virtually no credibility within the foreign press corps in South Korea, and most Korean experts view him as fringe and untrustworthy.

Your reporter could easily have verified Peck’s credibility (or lack of) with reporters who cover the peninsula, such as James Pearson of Reuters or Sang-hun Choe of The New York Times. She could have also spoken to well-known academic experts, such as John Delury (of Yonsei University) or Katherine Moon (of Wellesley College and the Brookings Institution). Instead, she simply reported Peck’s accusations as fact.

But not only are Mr. Peck’s charges baseless; he fabricates dangerous lies about individuals and organizations. I’ve been a target of his red-baiting myself. Recently, after an article of mine that was translated from The Nation went viral in South Korea, Peck attacked me in a right-wing publication in Seoul, calling me a communist and North Korean “sympathizer” (along with Noam Chomsky). In 2015, he tried to convince the Reuters bureau in Seoul that I belonged to two “pro-North Korean” organizations in Berkeley and Seoul; all of these claims are totally false and without any foundation whatsoever (wisely, Reuters ignored Peck).

Mr. Peck has been particularly vicious in his attacks on Christine Ahn of Women Cross DMZ. In your article, he claims – as he has on many occasions – that Women Cross DMZ is a “front group” for North Korea. In fact, he has gone much further than that.

In May, on the eve of a visit by the group to Seoul to participate in another women’s peace walk along the southern border of the DMZ, Mr. Peck gave a press conference charging that the May 2015 women’s peace walk was initiated by a North Korean diplomat named Pak Chol, and that Ms. Ahn was under his “influence.” In his statement, which was described in Yonhap News, Peck said, “Facts have emerged which indicate that the Women Cross project was likely a political influence operation by North Korea targeting [South Korea], and the US, and accomplished by the North’s intelligence service in conjunction with Ahn and some of her colleagues.”

This is an outright lie. I’ve known Ms. Ahn for many years. Because I’m a well-established writer on Korean affairs, Ms. Ahn sought my advice about her march in 2010, long before she approached the North and South Korean governments for permission to walk through their territories. I was in touch with her through the entire process and was lucky enough to witness the women cross the border at the DMZ, which I wrote about for Politico.

It was outrageous for your reporter and editor to allow Mr. Peck’s slander of Women Cross DMZ as a “front” for North Korea to stand with just a silent denial from the organization. For your information, its membership includes two Nobel Peace Laureates, a retired US Army Colonel, a regional director of Amnesty International, professors, human rights lawyers and a US Presidential Medal of Freedom awardee, the revered American feminist Gloria Steinem.

Here is a direct quote from Ms. Steinem about Mr. Peck’s accusations, sent to me yesterday:

I’ve known Christine Ahn since 2011 when we were both protesting the building of a U.S. naval base on Jeju Island at the tip of South Korea. She was clearly a smart, effective and independent organizer. We stayed friends, and in October 2013, Christine asked if an international delegation of women peacemakers could get permission from both governments to cross the DMZ, would I join? I said yes, I had lost high school classmates to the Korean War, and I was worried that, with no public discussion to the contrary, people assumed that the division of Korea was permanent. In fact, the Armistice Agreement that halted the war was designed to last three months until there could be peace talks.

Since the success of our peace walk, we’ve worked closely with Korean women peacemakers to call for these peace talks. We’re not a “front” for anyone, but a transparent group speaking only for ourselves. We act on our own, speak for ourselves, and participate in Women Cross DMZ because the Korean War must end with a peace agreement. A half century of official silence hasn’t worked, so why not try ordinary people talking?”

To verify her statement, please feel free to contact Ms. Steinem (note: I provided her email address).

To summarize, your article is inconsistent with the standards of journalistic practice and endangers pro-peace individuals, especially in South Korea where mere accusations of being pro-North can land them in jail. I request that you correct Ms. Fu’s article as soon as possible and run my statement as a rejoinder.

I look forward to your response.

Sincerely,

Tim Shorrock

Washington DC

Here is my full email exchange with Hayes Brown about the story and his previous work as an intelligence contractor.

Hayes Brown 4:46 PM to me, Ben

Tim, Mr. Peck was not the only person that Beimeng spoke to for this story — including defectors, Korean-American organization leaders, and scholars alike — and I disagree with your assessment that it hinged on his analysis. Moreover, you’re right that Roh’s site and views are protected under America’s freedom of speech. His ability to say what he likes in defense of a country where he’d be able to do nothing of the sort is the point of a story where you’ve chosen to focus on one aspect. We’ve read over your lengthy statement and are declining to publish it; we are also going to refrain from making any additional changes to the story at this time. We stand by Beimeng and if you chose to publish your statement elsewhere, I’ll happily read it there. Thanks, Hayes

Tim Shorrock 7:19 PM to Hayes, Ben

OK, you have decided to publish a McCarthyite smear on an entire community of Korean Americans on the basis of one man with a record of fraudulent smears, and you even defend your decision not to seek comment from those attacked. I will publish my full statement and more since you seem to have no compunction about committing journalistic malpractice.

Meanwhile, because I believe your editing and political background is entirely relevant to your approach to this story, I will publish with my statement the full details of your recent role as an intelligence contractor. According to a resume you submitted to a government contractor in 2012, you were a Cyber Policy Analyst with SRA International Inc., holding a Top Secret and Active security clearance, working for the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Cybersecurity and Communications. Your specialization in college was Asian Studies, and you learned Mandarin Chinese.

In this position, with your top secret clearance, were you working on issues pertaining to North Korea, which has been a major target of US cybersecurity policies? Were you blogging for sites such as At Water’s Edge and UN Dispatch while you were working for DHS? Do you still hold your security clearance? My full statement will be published after you have a chance to respond to my questions.

Tim Shorrock

Hayes Brown 7:28 PM to me

Hi Tim. I really disagree with you when you say my first real job out of college tinted my editing of this story but you’re the one who’s actually writing this up. “Cyber Policy Analyst” was the title but I was literally moving files digitally between CS&C’s branches. It was seriously an office admin gig; none of my work when I was 24 ever involved North Korea and I didn’t even get my TS clearance until right before I left the contract. I was blogging for those sites, the first of which was my personal site, and no, my clearance is no longer active since I let it lapse when I left SRA years ago. Thanks for reaching out.

Tim Shorrock 7:31 PM to Hayes

Got it. I will run your full statement. In doing so, I will be providing you what you refused to do to the Korean Americans you smeared. How a guy with your thin background became a national security editor at any publication is amazing.

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