Former Liberian dictator threatens to sue Boston Globe

Days before the Boston Globe published a withering editor’s note essentially retracting its Jan. 17 story about former Liberian dictator Charles Taylor’s alleged ties to the CIA, African news sources were reporting that Taylor was threatening to sue the Globe for libel.

Taylor escaped from a jail in Plymouth, Mass., in 1985, under circumstances suspicious enough to stoke rumors that U.S. authorities were involved. He is now facing charges in a war-crimes trial stemming from his brutal reign.

This past Monday, two days before the editor’s note appeared, the New Dawn, based in the Liberian capital, Monrovia, quoted Taylor’s lawyer, Courtenay Griffiths, as saying that Taylor denied having worked as a spy for the U.S. government. The article includes this:

“I spoke with Mr. Taylor,” Mr. Griffiths said. “He was very adamant that he has never worked for any American (spy) agency. The Liberian Security Agencies have worked … His National Patriotic Party of Liberia (NPFL) … But he as an individual has never worked (for the US Intelligence Agency).

“I know Mr. Taylor is very angry and he is not taking this likely [sic],” Griffiths told the New Dawn.

The story was carried in All Africa, which aggregates African news from a variety of sources. It includes the text of a letter Griffiths said he sent to Globe editor Marty Baron and others at the newspaper demanding copies of the documents they relied on in putting together their report. But the Globe now tells us there are no documents.

The editor’s note couldn’t be much tougher. It begins: “A front-page story on Jan. 17 drew unsupported conclusions and significantly overstepped available evidence when it described former Liberia president Charles Taylor as having worked with US spy agencies as a ‘sought-after source.'”

It goes on to describe the Globe’s longstanding Freedom of Information Act request that U.S. officials turn over documents related to what if any relationship the government had with Taylor. But though the Jan. 17 story, by longtime Globe staff reporter Bryan Bender, appears to be based at least in part on the documents, the editor’s note says otherwise:

[The US Defense Intelligence Agency] offered no such confirmation; rather, it said only that it possessed 48 documents running to 153 pages that fall in the category of what the Globe asked for — records relating to Taylor and to his relationship, if any, with American intelligence going back to 1982. The agency, however, refused to release the documents and gave no indication of what was in them.

The editor’s note concludes:

Taylor, now standing trial before a UN special court on charges of rape, murder and other offenses, denies he was ever a source for US intelligence. The Globe had no adequate basis for asserting otherwise and the story should not have run in this form.

There is still much that we don’t know. For instance, on Tuesday, Africa Review reported that Griffiths had “acknowledged that the Liberian Security agencies as well as his [Taylor’s] National Patriotic Party of Liberia worked or associated with US intelligence organs but not himself personally.” That’s hardly a blanket denial.

And at Foreign Policy’s Passport blog, Joshua Keating doesn’t seem all that upset about Taylor’s injured feelings. Calling the Globe’s note a “near retraction,” Keating nevertheless ends with this: “The fact that these ‘records relating to Taylor and to his relationship, if any, with American intelligence’ [quoting the Globe] exist but the CIA won’t release them is only going to increase the curiosity about what they contain. The correction is unlikely to stop the rumor mills in Monrovia, Washington, or The Hague.”

Bender is a good and careful reporter, and it seems pretty clear that there are other shoes yet to be dropped. The only thing we can say for certain at this point is that it’s all way too weird to come to any conclusions.