Tuesday, July 15, 2003

A letter to the editor of The Washington Times, purported to be from a senior U.S. diplomat with scathing criticism of the Foreign Service for lack of loyalty to the Bush administration, was exposed yesterday as a forgery.

Wesley Pruden, the editor in chief of The Times, said the newspaper learned “from the highest level at the State Department” that the letter was a hoax and the newspaper fully accepts “as true that the ambassador was not the author of this letter.”

Stephan M. Minikes, ambassador to the Vienna-based Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, writes in an authentic letter to The Times, published in full this morning on Page A18, that the forgery was a “complete and utter fabrication. It was not written by or for me and it expressed views that are diametrically opposite to the views I hold.

“The fact is that never in my long career have I worked with a more dedicated group of professionals than those I have encountered in the Department of State led by Secretary Powell — people who are absolutely committed to executing the president’s foreign policy goals.”

The State Department spokesman, Richard Boucher, told reporters at his regular briefing that Secretary of State Colin L. Powell conveyed to the newspaper’s top editors the seriousness with which he regards the matter.

Mr. Boucher, who broke with tradition by holding a copy of the newspaper to the cameras at the briefing, used a litany of nouns and adjectives to exhaust a thesaurus denouncing the letter as a “fake,” “hoax,” “put-up job,” “forgery,” “fraudulent,” “total invention and falsehood,” “bogus” and “sham.”

Mr. Pruden said he ordered the letter removed from the newspaper’s Internet Web site early in the day, as soon as he received the telephone call from the secretary of state, and the newspaper alerted the telegraph services, several of which had filed early dispatches about the letter. Corrected dispatches followed later in the day.

“The letter was sent to us, via e-mail, on Sunday from what appeared to be the ambassador’s e-mail address at the State Department,” Mr. Pruden said. “The standard procedure at The Times is to verify all letters to the editor; this procedure was not followed in this instance. We will find out why, and make changes in procedures as necessary. The Times regrets the embarrassment, which we fully share — to Ambassador Minikes, to Secretary Powell, and to the State Department.”

It was not yet clear whether the forger had sent the letter from Mr. Minikes’ e-mail account — or from the department’s server — or whether the sender disguised another account to look like the diplomat’s e-mail. Mr. Boucher said there were “a variety of electronic possibilities” for someone to have “pulled this off. You can fake people’s e-mail address — you see it in your spam every day. That’s why we need to work with them and determine how it [happened].”

The newspaper assigned a specialist from its Computer Services Department to work with technicians from the State Department to try to track the e-mail to the actual author.

“We will pursue this investigation with great energy,” Mr. Pruden said. “We intend to get to the bottom of this hoax. There is no offense more serious at any newspaper. We will make life as miserable as we can for the jerk who did it.”

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