Nobody at 60 Minutes has been fired or even publicly disciplined for its odd, inflammatory and dead-wrong October 27 story on the Islamist assault in Benghazi that killed U.S. ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. But it has apologized. That mea culpa, however, left some large and troubling questions unanswered; the most important one is how CBS’s superstar correspondent, Lara Logan, her producer and other network news executives let security contractor Dylan Davies on the air with his explosive tale about what he did and saw during that attack.
While Davies was the central on-camera personality in that report, the most interesting figure in this mystery was never on screen, nor listed as a contributor to the piece. It is Logan’s husband, Joseph W. Burkett, a former Army sergeant and onetime employee of a private intelligence outfit hired by the Pentagon to plant pro-U.S. stories in the Iraqi media in 2005.
One recent account implied that Burkett, 42, was the Svengali behind the now infamous story that pinned responsibility for the Benghazi attack on al Qaeda, without citing any sources.
“He was an employee of the Lincoln Group, a now-shuttered ‘strategic communications and public relations firm’ hired by the Department of Defense in 2005 to plant positive stories written by American soldiers in Baghdad newspapers during the Iraq War,” the website Gawker reported.
The Gawker account also implied Burkett was a key operator in the covert action. A source intimately familiar with Burkett’s family told Newsweek that he regularly suggested he was some sort of super-spook.
According to an internal company document obtained by Newsweek, the Lincoln Group specialized in producing films, news clips, and print stories in Baghdad that would be fed to the media through cutouts on an unattributed basis, making them appear as originating from legitimate news organizations.
During the 2006 battle for Fallujah, “Our development of documentaries of the Fallujah campaign and our ability to develop non-Coalition attributable messages enabled us to reach out to the Iraqi audience,” the document says. “This multifaceted project produced content for Western, Arab, and Iraqi audiences and is still ongoing. For each audience we have identified content and formatting that is appropriate and non-attributable to the actual source.” (Italics added.)
But others who claim to have known Burkett in Baghdad paint a starkly different portrait of the former enlisted man, one more akin to the role Steve McQueen played as a gofer for army supply sergeant Jackie Gleason in Soldier in the Rain.
According to a source intimately familiar with his family, Burkett routinely implied, without foundation, that he was a key player in classified operations in Iraq.
“He’s what we call a puffer – he puffs himself up,” said the source, on condition of anonymity. “He alluded to top-secret work, but he didn’t make as much money as a truck driver over there. He had some kind of minuscule position.… He was kind of an errand person or something like that.”
Besides, the source says, “People who are spies don’t really tell people they’re spies.”
When Logan and Burkett began their affair in Baghdad, he was married and she was in a relationship. They were married in 2008. “I knew him for about six years before we got together,” she told The New York Times in a soft-focus feature in 2012. “He had a very secretive job, and I always respected that. I know tons of people in that world, and I never ask them questions because it’s a violation right there.”
“He never crossed my boundaries,” Logan said of Burkett. “I never crossed his.”
After Logan was named CBS’s chief foreign correspondent, she purchased a $1.5 million home in D.C., which she now shares with Burkett and their two children. When asked for comment on Wednesday at the couple’s Cleveland Park home, Burkett angrily ushered me out the door. (CBS also declined to comment.)
Since returning from Iraq, Burkett appears to have cut ties with Lincoln and its various corporate permutations, but he has clearly kept a hand in the world of security contractors. In 2011, according to Texas public records, he was listed as “managing member” of Janus Lares Associates, an Austin-based ammunition dealer. (Burkett is from a prominent family in Kerrville.) In 2011, he was also named as the “governing person” of Sakom Services LLC in San Marcos, Texas, which lists an office in the UAE, whose owner-director is Justin Penfold, a U.K.-based “subject matter expert in the security industry” with experience in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Whatever Burkett is doing now, it doesn’t appear to be a full-time job. When New York Times reporter Sally Singer interviewed Logan at her home last year, she identified Burkett as a “work-at-home Congressional liaison,” without noting his employer. When I spoke to him midday on Wednesday, Burkett was home in jeans and a T-shirt, having just emerged from the shower, helping take care of the couple’s two kids with paid helpers in the kitchen and the backyard.
“Congressional liaison” is another way of saying lobbyist, but a search of public records did not reveal Burkett’s name. Nor did his name pop up in a search of the Justice Department’s registered foreign agents.
None of this would matter or even be a topic of conversation had Logan’s Benghazi story not included so many errors, documented most thoroughly by McClatchy Newspaper’s Cairo correspondent Nancy A. Youssef.
The unmasking of security contractor Davies as a fabricator was the starting point for Youssef and other critics, but what stood out for them was Logan’s unsourced allegations pinning responsibility for the attack solely on al Qaeda, and in particular, operatives with close ties to Osama Bin Laden. The effect of such allegations is to once again undermine the Obama administration’s position that the attack had local origins and came as a surprise, and that all that made rescuing the besieged Americans very difficult, if not impossible. And the 60 Minutes broadcast was hardly off the air when South Carolina Senator Lindsay Graham, a persistent critic of the administration for its handling of the Benghazi attack, declared he would block all of Obama’s nominations for government posts until he got more answers.
The State Department and CIA have conducted extensive internal investigations that, to unbiased observers, persuasively debunk charges of an orchestrated cover-up of the events in Benghazi.
Asked about the 60 Minutes report this week, a senior U.S. intelligence official told Newsweek that, based on what U.S. intelligence has learned, “members of several militia groups and al Qaeda linked affiliates participated in the attack.” However, he added on the condition of anonymity, since he was discussing a still-sensitive matter, “even though it has yet to be determined who called the shots, I have not seen any credible information that it was core al Qaeda.”
So why did Logan put that story on the air? Her pro-military bias is as well known, but so is her mettle – she’s worked in some of those most dangerous parts of war-ravaged Iraq, Afghanistan, and Egypt, where she was sexually assaulted by a mob. She won an Emmy for one of her Iraq reports.
In other words, she’s a smart, tough, experienced reporter. And the producer and writers and reporters who helped her put this Benghazi story together are honored, respected professionals, many of whom have been covering the region for years. Whoever fooled them, whoever convinced them that al Qaeda orchestrated that attack on the U.S. embassy, had to be smart, incredibly persuasive and savvy about the media. And unquotable.
In other words, an intelligence source. And the person closest to Logan with those credentials is her husband. But he’s not talking.
Jeff Stein is a Newsweek contributing editor in Washington.
This story has been corrected to reflect that the original 60 Minutes report aired on October 27.