As it prepared to broadcast a rare on-air correction Sunday for a now-discredited “60 Minutes” report, CBS News acknowledged Friday that it had suffered a damaging blow to its credibility. Its top executive called the segment “as big a mistake as there has been” in the 45-year history of the celebrated news program.
The executive, Jeff Fager, conceded that CBS appeared to have been duped by the primary source for the report, a security official who told a national television audience a harrowing tale of the attack last year at the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya. On Thursday night it was disclosed that the official, Dylan Davies, had provided a completely different account in interviews with the FBI, in which he said he never made it to the mission that night.
After that revelation, CBS decided to take multiple actions Friday. It removed the report from the CBS News website, and the correspondent for the segment, Lara Logan, appeared on the CBS morning news show to apologize for the mistakes in the report. The company’s publishing division, Simon & Schuster, said it was suspending publication of a book by Davies, in which he tells the same narrative he recounted on “60 Minutes.’’
“It’s a black eye, and it’s painful,’’ Fager said in a phone interview. He declined to say whether there would be negative consequences for any of the journalists involved.
Logan, on “CBS This Morning,” said the network was “misled” by Davies, who told “60 Minutes” that he had witnessed the Sept. 11, 2012, attack that left four Americans dead, including U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens. “The most important thing to every person at ‘60 Minutes’ is the truth, and the truth is we made a mistake,” said Logan.
The retractions and the scale of the mistake spurred comparisons with another embarrassing episode for CBS News: a report in 2004 about George W. Bush’s National Guard record that CBS was also forced to retract. That report, which appeared on a short-lived spinoff, “60 Minutes II,” resulted in several firings and played a role in the separation of CBS and its longtime anchor, Dan Rather.
Davies, who used the pseudonym Morgan Jones on the “60 Minutes” report and on the jacket of his book, “The Embassy House,’’ gave three separate interviews to the FBI, according to Obama administration officials. Each time he described the events in ways that diverged from his account to CBS, when he claimed to have been personally involved in the action during the attack — to the point of disabling one of the attackers with a blow from a rifle. He also recounted a clandestine visit that night to a Benghazi hospital to view Stevens’ body. He told his employer, meanwhile, that he stayed home at his beach villa during the attack.
The “60 Minutes” report helped fuel another round of GOP accusations against the State Department and Obama administration over their account of the attack.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., vowed to block confirmation of Obama’s nominees, including Jeh Johnson as homeland-security secretary and Janet Yellen as head of the Federal Reserve, until the administration allowed government witnesses to the attack to appear before Congress.
A spokesman for Graham declined to address the matter Friday, saying Graham would address it Sunday in an interview with CNN.
The Washington Post raised questions about Davies’ account in a story published four days after the “60 Minutes” broadcast. The story noted Davies gave his employer a different account of his experiences that night than the one he gave Logan on “60 Minutes.”
In a 2½ -page “incident” report to Blue Mountain, the Britain-based contractor hired by the State Department to handle perimeter security at the compound, Davies said he spent most of that night at his Benghazi beachside villa. “We could not get anywhere near (the compound) … as roadblocks had been set up,” he wrote.
Logan said Friday that Davies had denied the incident report when CBS questioned him about it, and said he had told the FBI the same story he recounted on “60 Minutes.”
Davies contended he had not created or approved the incident report to Blue Mountain and that he had needed to lie to his employer because he had defied orders to remain at his villa. The justification for believing him, Fager said Friday, was Davies’ assurance he had told the truth to the FBI, one that would corroborate his account to CBS.
His interviews with the FBI were disclosed Thursday night in The New York Times.
With agents unable to operate freely in Benghazi, the FBI, which is conducting an investigation into the attack, has struggled to get interviews with the guards hired to protect the mission and other witnesses. That has forced the agents to rely on the accounts provided by State Department officials and contractors who have left the country. As part of those efforts, the FBI interviewed Davies by phone, teleconference and in Wales, where Davies lives. (Davies could not be reached Friday. Fager said he had told CBS News he had “gone into hiding.”)
Fager said CBS had been duped by a convincing liar: “We believe we have a really good system to guard against that. This guy got through that.”
But the program seemed to make a crucial error in going ahead with its report before it knew for certain what was in the FBI interviews. Fager said CBS had made extensive efforts to determine what Davies told the FBI. He said the network had sources who led the program to believe the FBI report was “in sync” with the account Davies gave to “60 Minutes.”
Informed Thursday night that the FBI version diverged from what Davies said on “60 Minutes,’’ CBS News checked its own FBI sources, Fager said, and learned that what Davies had told the FBI “differed from what he told us.”
Fager said that led to a difficult night. He called Logan and said she would have to appear on “CBS This Morning” to admit the error and apologize.
As CBS was backtracking on its report, Threshold Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, said it was recommending that booksellers remove Davies’ book from their shelves, which was published Oct. 29. More than 38,000 copies are in print.
Material from The Washington Post is included in this report.