Allegations disseminated by the website Now that California State University Stanislaus professor As’ad AbuKhalil worked for the CIA are based on nothing more than information harvested from Internet spam sites and web forums.
AbuKhalil is also the author of the widely-read blog The Angry Arab News Service where he has frequently been harshly critical of both the Syrian regime and opposition.
This post will demonstrate that the information on which basis it is claimed AbuKhalil worked for the CIA lacks any element of credibility or reliability whatsoever.
AbuKhalil has forcefully denied the claims.
In a 29 December article in Arabic on the website Now, Ahed al-Hendi, identified as as a “Syrian opposition activist,” alleges that AbuKhalil worked as a “doorman” or “host” for the CIA:
Washington - It is naive to believe that the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has no doorman. More important is that one of the “doormen” at the headquarters of this agency formerly was an “Angry” Arab of California and “resister” As’ad AbuKhalil. This is no silly joke, mere accusation, or secret or classified information, but information provided by American firms that specialize in collating public records about individuals, companies and organizations.
The website LexisNexis is the world’s biggest database of legal documents, public records about individuals and companies, and this information is provided to the public. When searched for As’ad AbuKhalil, the site reveals that he worked during an unspecified period for the Central Intelligence Agency, as a host. The agency’s phone number on the website belongs to the agency’s public affairs office.
This information comes in the context of the website’s presentation of the positions a person held based on his Social Security Number, and it appears that AbuKhalil worked as a professor at the University of California [sic] with the same Social Security Number, which eliminates any doubt about a similarity of names.
Al-Hendi’s article is accompanied by this tightly cropped screenshot purporting to support its allegations:
This is the only part of the article that sets out the “evidence” regarding AbuKhalil. Taking his own claims to be true, al-Hendi engages in speculations about AbuKhalil’s motives and tries to explain AbuKhalil’s alleged position of “host” – which on its face makes little sense. Why would the CIA hire AbuKhalil as a “host” or “doorman?”
Al-Hendi’s claims are then laundered in an article by a writer called Hussain Abdul-Hussain, identified as the “Washington Bureau Chief of Kuwaiti newspaper Alrai” in an article on the English version of the Now website, headlined “‘Angry Arab’ or CIA operative?”.
Abdul-Hussain’s article claims: “only until today was evidence finally uncovered after Syrian activist Ahed al-Hendi, while perusing through public records on the Internet, discovered that AbuKhalil had been paid by the CIA.”
The two Now articles containing these allegations have been quickly and credulously disseminated by numerous journalists concerned with Syria, individuals affiliated with the human rights groups Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, and pro-Israel and pro-Syria-opposition activists. These include:
- Former CNN correspondent Octavia Nasr
- Martin Jay of Deutsche Welle and The Atlantic Post
- Mike Doran of the Brookings Institution
- Matthew Levitt, a former US Treasury official and currently a senior fellow at the AIPAC-affiliated Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
- Max Fisher of The Washington Post (who also expressed some dismay at the harm to the reputation of the CIA for employing someone like AbuKhalil)
- Elliot Higgins or “Brown Moses,” a UK blogger who has investigated use of weapons in the Syrian civil war.
- Danny Gold a journalist for Vice News, NBC, and The Atlantic.
- Tamara Alrifai, Communications and Advocacy director for Middle East and North Africa division at Human Rights Watch
- Oren Kessler, former Jerusalem Post reporter now working for the Henry Jackson Society.
- Kristyan Benedict of Amnesty International
- Lisa Goldman former editor of Peter Beinart’s defunct Open Zion and New America Foundation staffperson (from January 2014)
- Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic retweeted the article two times.
Yet had any of these individuals enthusiastically disseminating these claims conducted some basic due diligence, they would have discovered that al-Hendi’s “evidence” holds no water and should in fact be treated not just as a “silly joke” but as a sloppy attempt at defamation.
As noted, the “evidence” produced by Ahed al-Hendi is a screenshot of result 16 and 17 apparently from LexisNexis Public Records, a database product marketed to law enforcement, federal and state government agencies, corporations and media organizations. A disclaimer on the product information page states (emphasis added):
Due to the nature of the origin of public record information, the public records and commercially available data sources used in reports may contain errors. Source data is sometimes reported or entered inaccurately, processed poorly or incorrectly, and is generally not free from defect. This product or service aggregates and reports data, as provided by the public records and commercially available data sources, and is not the source of the data, nor is it a comprehensive compilation of the data. Before relying on any data, it should be independently verified.
There is no indication that al-Hendi made any attempt to independently verify the information he reports.
The disclaimer means that LexisNexis does not produce the data itself, it merely aggregates the data from potentially thousands of sources, “including public, private, regulated and derived data.” LexisNexis is not the original or sole source for the data they sell through their public records database product, and the data they publish can be found from another source who has licensed or sold it to LexisNexis.
Furthermore, in this context, “public data” does not necessarily indicate government data or official data but any data from any publicly accessible source including web sites and internet search engines.
A LexisNexis sales presentation mentions that the company partners with Zoominfo, a firm that produces data about job histories based on information scraped from web sites.
The Electronic Intifada could not reproduce the search on LexisNexis itself because it did not have access to the specific database product to which al-Hendi apparently refers.
However, searching Google for the exact details about As’ad AbuKhalil contained in the LexisNexis search result shown in the al-Hendi article revealed only one relevant link: to Zoominfo.
While the Zoominfo link is now dead, Internet caches still show the information the page previously contained. There are no other public sources for the alleged CIA employment history of As’ad AbuKhalil.
The details on the Zoominfo page match the LexisNexis data cited by al-Hendi precisely: name, job title, employer name, PO Box and city. Only the ZIP (postal) codes differ between Zoominfo and LexisNexis.
The web references for this information cited by Zoominfo are two dead links. One is “Abdullah the Butcher,” a name apparently referring to a Canadian professional wrestler, on the domain www.summitautocenter.com. It is not clear why a used car dealer near Buffalo, NY should be considered a reliable source about As’ad AbuKhalil’s employment history.
The link itself no longer exists, but Zoominfo maintains a cache of the source, which was generated on 28 January 2008:
Hezbollah’s big challenge (Abdullah The Butcher)
Asia Times - so they can be all swayed (by checkbook?) by King Abdullah. As’ad AbuKhalil, host of the CIA) asset, former Iraqi interim prime minister and “Butcher Continue reading
Egypt Today - Many citizens still haven t bought into the government s line. As butcher Mohamed Abdullah El-Farrargy teases, the best rumor he has heard to date is the one that claims the government will fairly compensate retailers for their losses and buy up Continue reading
Tags: abdullah the butcher
May 24th 2007 Added to Abdullah The Butcher
This block of text is mostly unreadable nonsense and appears to be the mashed up parts of at least two different articles. The other content on the page has no apparent connection to anything related to As’ad Abukhalil or the Canadian professional wrestler “Abdullah the Butcher.”
The quoted text is a chopped up version of a 19 April 2007 Asia Times article by Pepe Escobar that contains this sentence:
As’ad AbuKhalil, host of the Angry Arab website, always stresses that the Lebanese civil war never ended.
Three paragraphs later, Escobar writes:
Officials in Damascus are more than happy to remind anyone that Hariri was also very close to former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) asset, former Iraqi interim prime minister and “Butcher of Fallujah”, Iyad Allawi, Not to mention that he was the facilitator of a $20 billion arms deal between the Russians and the House of Saud.
These two separate sentences were combined by whatever created the “Abdullah the Butcher” page on www.summitautocenter.com to read as the nonsensical phrase:
As’ad AbuKhalil, host of the CIA) asset, former Iraqi interim prime minister and “Butcher”
This collection of randomly collated keywords forms the substance of Zoominfo’s reference supporting the “fact” that As’ad Abukhalil worked as a “host” for the CIA.
The second Zoominfo reference for the claim is an accurate quote from an unmangled version of the same Pepe Escobar article posted on itszone.co.uk, a web forum site that no longer exists.
As’ad AbuKhalil, host of the Angry Arab website, always stresses that the Lebanese civil war never ended.
Zoominfo thinks the reference was dated 2003, even though the Escobar article was not published until 2007.
It is strange that both references originate from the same Pepe Escobar article but the original Pepe Escobar article itself is not cited as a reference, even though Asia Times should be recognized as a more authoritative source in general compared to user-generated content on an internet forum and search engine spam.
A “CIA” post office box?
Zoominfo and LexisNexis agree on the PO Box number and city but not the ZIP code. Zoominfo says that As’ad Abukhalil worked for the CIA that used the PO Box 12727 in Arlington, Virginia 22209. LexisNexis data says that As’ad Abukhalil worked for the CIA at the same PO Box and city but in the 22219 ZIP code.
Public records searches for the two addresses reveal that the PO Box in the 22209 ZIP code (the one Zoominfo lists) has been used by the Central Intelligence Agency for employment and recruiting and also for the Undergraduate Scholar Program, a scholarship for graduating high school students who either have a disability or belong to a minority ethnic group.
Zoominfo also lists 3,753 other alleged employees of the CIA all operating out of this one PO Box, including people with job titles like “honorary vice president,” “certified master chef,” “director of the Global Jihad Unit,” “spymaster,” “head smacker,” “spook,” “007,” and even “ghost.”
According to Zoominfo, the CIA employs or has employed the famed Russian-Canadian professional concert accordionist Alexander Sevastian. He was only one of a number of accordionists allegedly employed by the CIA.
Meanwhile, searching for the address provided in the LexisNexis results posted on Now (with ZIP code 22219, a special ZIP code only used for post office boxes) can reveal that this address is not linked to the Central Intelligence Agency at all but rather:
- Niederhauser & Davis, LLC, a law firm
- Wells Fargo & Company, a bank
- K2 Irrigation Services, a company that is a member of the Carolinas Irrigation Association or “CIA”
If the exact address with the ZIP+4 is searched, only one result turns up: Sean Dennehy, a CIA employee, who is not “Chief Technology Officer” (as this link says) but rather the Chief of Intellipedia Development for the CIA’s Directorate of Intelligence.
It is not clear if Dennehy holds this position today. Other databases do not list this post office box for Dennehy.
LexisNexis aggregates data from a multitude of sources and attempts to make connections that might be hard to see because their sources have errors and inconsistencies.
Zoominfo is one very likely source of the data published by LexisNexis and quoted by Now, and the only source that I could find in the public record that identifies As’ad Abukhalil as a “host” at the CIA. When the details of either source are scrutinized at all, it is abundantly clear that these sources cannot be taken at face value. They must, as LexisNexis cautions and Now failed to do, be independently verified.
Zoominfo is widely recognized as riddled with bugs
Zoominfo produces its data by scraping web sites and making connections among data points about who someone is, what companies they work for and when they worked for them.
However, this is a highly inaccurate process, especially when the input is faulty (such as the case with data from “Abdullah the Butcher”).
There are several easy ways to find posts about Zoominfo’s bad data (just search “Zoominfo false scrape” in Google) but one that illustrates the point very well is “Leads, Leads, Leads” by Laura Atkins, the founder of anti-spam consultancy Word to the Wise. In a 2012 post, she writes:
I have to admit, I’m actually surprised at just how totally inaccurate the data about me is. I’m not that hard to find. Zoominfo has 6 listings I can clearly identify as me. In those 6 listings:
- Not a single listing gets my contact information correct.
- Not a single listing gets my employer correct.
- Three of the listings identify me as working for different companies.
- I’ve never worked for any of those companies.
- One of the “companies” is a non-profit I volunteer with.
- One of the companies is a blog written by a colleague.
- One of those companies is a now defunct magazine that published an interview with me.
But the failure in data collection is not just in the area of collecting personal data. Their corporate information is even worse. Zoominfo has linked me with four companies. In those 4 listings:
- Zoominfo incorrectly identifies The Minnesota Companion Rabbit Society as headquartered in Virginia.
- Zoominfo incorrectly identifies Spamtacular as located in California.
- Zoominfo identifies Context Magazine as a viable company.
- Zoominfo identifies me as the “founding partner” of a company called Word.
Total strikeout for Zoominfo.
In 2010, a Republican party candidate for US Senate in Delaware, was accused of lying about her educational credentials. The data appeared on LinkedIn and Zoominfo, but on Zoominfo it was marked as “user verified,” meaning that someone claiming to be Christine O’Donnell had entered or approved the information on the site. This led some bloggers to recognize that absolutely anyone could post fraudulent information on Zoominfo by impersonating someone else.
Yousef Munayyer noticed that a Zoominfo search for journalist Glenn Greenwald shows that Greenwald has served as the Governor of Illinois. There has never been any person named Greenwald who served as the Governor of Illinois!
In Australia, allegations of corruption against Supreme Court of Queensland Justice Henry George Fryberg published on the site Haig Report have led to Justice Fryberg being identified on Zoominfo as holding the position of “corrupt parasite” at the Supreme Court of Queensland.
Hussain Abdul-Hussain, author of the English Now article, is identified in Zoominfo as a writer for Jewish Ideas Daily, a web site that has been praised by John Podhoretz, the intemperate editor of far-right Commentary magazine. However, this is false.
Ahed al-Hendi, the author of the Arabic Now article that originally published the false story about As’ad AbuKhalil, is revealed by Zoominfo to work for Cyberdissidents.org, a group whose advisory board includes ardently pro-Israel Canadian member of parliament Irwin Cotler and Jewish Agency for Israel chairman Natan Sharansky. The leaders of Cyberdissidents.org, David Keyes and Nir Boms, have both served in the Israeli army and worked for or advised the Israeli government.
This is one case where Zoominfo turns out to be rather accurate. The Cyberdissidents.org website lists al-Hendi as one of its “Experts.”
After the Now articles were published, people gloated about the irony of an anti-imperialist writer working for the CIA. Even people who likely realized that the evidence was very weak defended the defamation as a kind of justice or revenge for AbuKhalil’s writings and opinions.
Even Hussain Abdul-Hussain, who wrote the English article for Now, appears to acknowledge that the falsehoods he spread are intended to achieve not the dissemination of truth or facts but a kind of lesson for AbuKhalil:
What many care about is for him to stop his populism and stop spewing unsubstantiated claims about the character and integrity of those he disagrees with.
It is hard to understand how so many professionals could have so little respect for truth or accuracy and yet expect AbuKhalil or anyone else to take lessons in ethics from them.
Those same journalists and human rights advocates cannot evaluate the quality of their own evidence and will abandon those same ethics to fulfill a petty, emotional need for revenge against someone with whose views they disagree.
Ali Abunimah assisted with translation.