The bogus tale, first reported by The Standard-Times, a local newspaper in New Bedford, formed the basis for a front-page article in The Crimson on Dec. 19.
News that the story had been discredited came too late for the flurry of critics, including Sen. Edward M. Kennedy ’54, D-Mass., who had already seized on the story as evidence of the federal government’s disregard for civil liberties.
The UMass-Dartmouth student originally said two officials from the Department of Homeland Security had shown up at his home to question him about his interest in the “Little Red Book,” the Chinese Communist leader’s seminal text. But in a meeting on Dec. 22 with two faculty members, a school official, and a reporter for The Standard-Times, the student’s story began to evaporate.
Pressed for details of the incident, the student described yet another encounter with federal agents at his family’s home, according to Brian G. Williams, an associate professor of history at UMass-Dartmouth, who attended the meeting. But Williams said that when he visited the student’s house, his family knew nothing about the supposed agents or their visits. Confronted by Williams, the student broke down and admitted that he had made up the entire story.
Williams said he had no idea why the student made up the account. “In this case, I’m heartbroken that my trust in the student led to this,” he said in a telephone interview.
Williams and Robert E. Pontbriand, a lecturer in the history department at UMass-Dartmouth, had relayed the student’s tale as fact to several media outlets before holes in the story emerged. Pontbriand did not respond to phone calls or e-mails seeking comment.
But Williams said that he was glad that the media attention helped the truth of the matter emerge. Now, he said, the concerns that the student’s original account raised on the UMass-Dartmouth campus have been put to rest.
Williams has chosen not to identify the student, and The Standard-Times has complied with the request of the faculty members and the university not to reveal the student’s name, which could not be independently obtained.
Reports of the incident had drawn nationwide attention and mentions by several prominent figures on the left, including syndicated columnist Molly Ivins and Kennedy, who alluded to the now-discredited reports in an op-ed in The Boston Globe on Dec. 22.
“Think of the chilling effect on free speech and academic freedom when a government agent shows up at your home—after you request a book from the library,” Kennedy wrote at the end of his piece criticizing President Bush’s authorization of domestic wiretapping without warrants.
Online, many bloggers discussed the story and its quick disintegration, with defenders of the Bush administration particularly gleeful to find that the student had made up his account.
A spokesman for UMass-Dartmouth, John Hoey, told the Globe that the student would not be disciplined as a result of his deception. That statement has sparked protest from another professor at the school, Clyde W. Barrow, director of the Center for Policy Analysis, who said the student should be suspended and forced to make a public apology for deceiving the public. He also called on the faculty members who relayed the student’s tale to issue public apologies.
“The reality is this could have been prevented at many points along the way and it wasn’t,” Barrow said. “This was a conscious and deliberate attempt to perpetrate a hoax.”
Barrow said that the faculty members should not have told the press about the student’s story before verifying it, and he said that their behavior demonstrated an ideological bent in addition to poor judgment. This incident, Barrow said, was another example of “a faculty culture that seems…continually on the edge of hysteria, constantly predisposed to embrace these kinds of incidents at face value.”
But Williams said that he and Pontbriand both have moderate views and only wanted to find out the truth about the student’s story. The media coverage of the student’s tale began when Williams mentioned what he had heard about the incident as a side note to a reporter who was interviewing him about President Bush’s authorization of domestic wiretapping, Williams said. The story then became the reporter’s lead, he said.
Williams said he was opposed to any discipline for the student. “It wasn’t something that would have given this kid the help he needed,” he said.
Hoey, the UMass-Dartmouth spokesman, said on Dec. 29 that the school would no longer comment on any aspects of the incident.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security, Jamie E. Zuieback, said in an interview that several aspects of the student’s story seemed questionable from the beginning. But she said that the original article about the supposed incident was not detailed enough to determine whether certain inconsistencies were the result of confusion or fabrication on the student’s part.
The student claimed to have been visited by two representatives from the Department of Homeland Security, but Zuieback said the department does not have its own agents. All agents who work for the department are part of sub-agencies, like the Immigration and Customs Enforcement, she said.
The student also claimed that the agents told him that the “Little Red Book” was on a “watch list.” Zuieback said that there is no “watch list,” and added that the department is not interested in what people read.
Under the Patriot Act, currently up for renewal in Congress, the Federal Bureau of Investigation can demand that a library release the record of books that an individual has borrowed. But that record must be relevant to an ongoing terrorism or intelligence investigation, and the investigation cannot be conducted solely on the basis of an activity protected by the First Amendment, such as requesting a controversial book from the library.
Zuieback emphasized that once a law has been broken, however, these kinds of considerations do not apply, and she said that investigators routinely have access to many kinds of records and personal information relevant to individuals with suspected connections to a violation of the law.
—Staff writer Lois E. Beckett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.