Boston Isn’t Strong. Boston Is Scared Sh*tless.
I’m sitting across a booth from Russ Baker at the Penny Farthing, a cavernous pub just off Union Square in Manhattan’s East Village, learning about mercury levels in fish. He’s telling me they’re dangerously high. The salmon should be okay. But tuna and swordfish are trouble. It’s not nearly as provocative as hearing him argue that Tamerlan Tsarnaev might’ve worked for the FBI, but it is one more thing that Baker is certain we would all be alarmed by—if only we were paying closer attention.
I order the Cobb salad.
It’s an unseasonably warm Friday afternoon in mid-October. Baker is coming off a case of laryngitis, and his high-pitched voice is raspy. His hair, swept straight back, is gray, and his pinstriped collared shirt is rumpled and untucked—the disheveled uniform of someone who works from home. Removing his half-rim tortoiseshell glasses, Baker reveals dark circles under his eyes. Despite his weary appearance, Baker will hold court for the next five hours without flagging. His vigor is remarkable.
He wants to begin by telling me about himself. This exercise, however, is complicated by his reluctance to divulge details like his exact age (he was born in the late ’50s, according to an article he links to on his personal website), his marital status, or the full names and locations of family members—anything that would make him more vulnerable to covert surveillance, intimidation, or worse.
Why does Baker worry about such things? He believes Americans who challenge the status quo are punished and is suspicious of governments and business interests—anyone who may feel threatened by his work. “We are told constantly not to rock the boat,” he says. “We are told in very subtle ways not to do things by examples of those who do.”
Baker is a journalist, and to hear a lot of people tell it, he’s a damn good one. In almost three decades on the job, he’s contributed to the New Yorker, the New York Times, Vanity Fair, and many other prestigious publications, winning his fair share of distinguished awards. “He’s an indefatigable reporter who has made a specialty of digging deep into stories when most other people have left the story,” former CBS News anchor Dan Rather tells me later. “And he’s very good at raising the right questions.”
Over the past decade, however, Baker has abandoned the mainstream media and become a key player on the fringe, walking that murky line between conventional investigative journalist and wild-eyed conspiracy theorist—a term that, unsurprisingly, he despises, although in December he did an “Ask Me Anything” for Reddit’s “Conspiracy” board. Since April 2013, Baker and his online nonprofit news outlet, WhoWhatWhy, have been raising provocative questions about the Boston Marathon bombings. Questions like “Does New Boston Bombing Report Hint at Hidden Global Intrigue?” and “‘Boston Strong’—A Feel Good Distraction from a Darker Truth?” and “Is Officer Collier’s Killer Still at Large?”
Baker’s cagey about where he stands on the answers. “I think it’s very important to be agnostic and open-minded about everything,” he says. “I am equally distrustful of the establishment explanation for things [as well as] the knee-jerk alternative default scenario, which says that the government is lying about everything. And because of that, there are always a lot of people who are unhappy with me.”
It would be a lot easier to dismiss Baker as a nut and move on if it weren’t for his three decades of award-winning investigative- reporting experience. But at the very least, this veteran journalist believes the federal government is covering up a security lapse at the marathon. He also seems pretty certain that Tamerlan Tsarnaev was cooperating with the FBI before April 2013—a notion that might sound familiar to anyone who remembers the name James “Whitey” Bulger. And Baker is not willing to rule out the possibility that the bombings were a false-flag operation conducted or permitted by elements of the American government in order to justify the Homeland Security complex. What’s more, Baker is not happy that Bostonians have accepted the official explanation of the bombings, saying he—for one—is not nearly done asking questions.
Born in Southern California during the twilight of the Eisenhower administration, Baker took his early cues from his father, who was more Abbie Hoffman than Ward Cleaver. Len Baker started out working as a systems analyst in the aerospace industry, but as the Vietnam War grew deadlier, he quit his job and joined the peace movement, dragging his young son to antiwar demonstrations on weekends. Baker’s father also took his family to live for short stints in Europe and Mexico. One summer, he sent his son to a “work camp,” where Baker picked fruit and plowed fields each morning at dawn. “I guess it was some liberal’s idea of building character,” Baker jokes. Baker’s father eventually opened a business importing children’s toys.
Len’s politics, however, had rubbed off on Baker. “Putting aside North Korea,” Baker says, he learned that “we may be the most propagandized country on Earth.” While in elementary school, he joined Eugene McCarthy’s 1968 presidential campaign. He still remembers waving his campaign sign on the night of McCarthy’s California primary rally and being tossed up in the air by “some famous athlete” in the crowd. McCarthy lost to Robert Kennedy, but that “was an exciting night,” Baker says. “We got home, turned on the evening news, and that’s where I learned that Robert F. Kennedy had been shot and killed. Even at that age, I realized how vulnerable a democracy is to those who want to derail it.”
Baker had his first desk in a campaign office before he was a teenager, and he set up a business selling political memorabilia at 14. He then enrolled at UCLA, where he served as president of the Bruin Democrats. “Russ was one of the most outstanding individuals I had ever run into in this age frame—intellectually alive, able to articulate it both verbally and in writing,” recounts Rick Tuttle, then an associate dean of student activities who was active in the same progressive political circles as Baker and his family.
After college, Baker followed in his father’s footsteps and became a merchandise sales rep, a job he considers the perfect training for journalism. “Writing an article is a sales job,” he says. “Ideally, you’re working with some good-quality material, and then you have to tell the story. This is the key to salesmanship and it’s the key to journalism, and it is the key to the Boston Marathon bombing story. You’re trying to sell something that you believe to be of value and you’re trying to overcome the most vigorous objections of very entrenched interests and people whose personal sense of well-being is dependent on what you’re saying not being true.”
Selling merchandise like his father could satisfy Baker’s restless mind for only so long. After several years, he started taking what he calls “weird vacations.” It was the mid-1980s, the Reagan administration was inserting itself into Central American civil conflicts, and Baker was curious, so he traveled to El Salvador and Nicaragua. He found the violence in El Salvador “terrifying” and discovered for himself that the socialist Sandinista government in Nicaragua was not as evil as the U.S. government had gone to great lengths to make it appear.
He enrolled at Columbia Journalism School, and after graduation worked as a metro reporter with Newsday in New York City.
The next year, Baker once again followed his nose to a far-flung corner of the world, this time to cover a story that would further refine his views on power and information. In 1988, he traveled to the East African nation of Burundi to expose the Tutsi massacres of Hutus—a harbinger of the Rwandan genocide. There, he saw “whole families macheted to death” in remote villages. “This I will never forget,” Baker tells me. In “any society, those unspoken differences can flare up in an atmosphere of panic, terror, fear, anger—particularly when it’s all being fed deliberately by disinformation. And this relates again to the Boston bombing story, where I saw this rush to judgment, this lockdown of the city, people told not to think, everybody to direct all of their anger and suppositions at the certitude that it was these two guys. I saw the same lockdown of the mind, the [same] prevalence of fear, and the [same] pack mentality, the language of propaganda, like ‘Boston Strong.’ These are the uses of propaganda that are so dangerous.”
Drawn to the notion of toppling oppressors and authoritarian rule, he flew to East Germany in 1989, just before the Berlin Wall fell. The following month, he was among the first foreign journalists on the ground covering the Romanian revolution. After the fall of Communism, Baker concluded his extraordinary run abroad and returned to New York, where he continued writing investigative articles for numerous newspapers and magazines. On the morning of September 11, 2001, Baker was on the scene at the World Trade Center reporting for the Los Angeles Times. Two years later, while the New York Times and Washington Post were heaping praise on Colin Powell’s now-infamous presentation of the trumped-up case for war with Iraq at the United Nations, Baker was scrutinizing the intelligence and standing strong against the tide, publicly doubting the Bush administration’s rationale for war. It was a fiercely unpopular stance at the time, but Baker, history proved, was on the right side.
By his mid-forties, Baker had earned his stripes as an investigative reporter with a gift for raising questions that few others asked. During the run-up to the 2004 presidential election, however, he found a story that brought all of his natural skills and life experiences together like never before, including his father’s political activism, his ability to see the United States from an outside perspective, and his reluctance to swallow the party line. It was a story that changed the course of Baker’s career and ultimately thrust him into self-imposed exile from the mainstream media.
It all started when Baker began digging into George W. Bush’s record with the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam War. Dan Rather would famously clash with CBS News and leave the network after it retracted his story about Bush’s service when right-wing critics charged that documents used to support the story were phony. Baker—whose initial reporting on the subject was published days after Rather’s—not only believes the substance of Rather’s report, but takes it a step further by alleging that Bush’s political team likely forged and planted the suspicious documents to undermine the story.
In the election’s aftermath, Baker was so troubled by Bush’s victory that he vowed to write a book about it. The project took a life-altering turn, however, when Baker discovered an interview during which Bush’s father, George H. W. Bush, said he couldn’t remember where he was on the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated—an odd claim that had somehow gone largely unexamined. After all, everyone alive at the time remembered where they were when JFK died—why couldn’t H. W.? Seeking the answer to that question dragged Baker into the Bermuda Triangle of journalism: the realm of JFK assassination theories.
In the resultant book, Family of Secrets, Baker ended up devoting as much attention to 41 as he did to 43, including a dogged investigation of the elder Bush’s whereabouts on November 22, 1963. Baker places George H. W. Bush in Dallas on the night before and likely the morning of Kennedy’s assassination—and believes there is evidence of an FBI record of Bush telephoning agents, minutes after the shooting became public, to say he’d heard that a Republican activist in Texas had talked about killing the president. A Bush aide later provided an alibi for the man. Cobbled together from facts as well as circumstantial evidence, Baker’s book concludes that George H. W. Bush worked for the CIA long before he became the agency’s director in 1976, and it implies that he was somehow involved in Kennedy’s assassination.
Family of Secrets was trounced by the mainstream media: “There are more crutches in these pages,” wrote the Washington Post, “than in the grotto at Lourdes.” And yet it’s an impressive feat of reporting, its pages filled with constellations of intriguing and often troubling facts. Baker’s editor, Peter Ginna, told the New York Observer in 2009, “I worked at Oxford University Press for 10 years and published several Pulitzer Prize–winning historians, and I have not published any book that was more extensively documented and more impeccably footnoted than this one.” Gore Vidal called it “one of the most important books of the past 10 years.”
Still, if journalism is—as Baker says—a sales job, he ultimately failed to seal the deal. Tim Weiner, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award and author of CIA and FBI histories, calls the book “a carnival of conspiracy theory,” telling me, “Russ Baker’s a perfectly decent human being who’s done perfectly decent work in the past, and I do not mean to impugn him or his motives. I’m sure he is driven by the search for truth that drives reporters everywhere, but conspiracy theory in which there’s a giant octopus that connects disparate events and provides a unified field theory explanation of otherwise disparate events is not either journalism or history.” Even Rick Tuttle, Baker’s mentor at UCLA, couldn’t endorse the book. “I don’t buy it,” he says. “I don’t buy into the view he has of all the sins of the Bush family.”
Despite the widespread dismissal of his book, Baker’s outlook was permanently colored by his experiences investigating Bush and the Kennedy assassination. He became “more skeptical of official accounts than he might have been before,” Ginna tells me. “I don’t necessarily share every idea or everything that he’s skeptical about with him, but I do think it’s really important for somebody to do investigative journalism and dig up things that other people aren’t finding.”
“To some extent, I’ve always been a little bit suspicious of the surface narrative,” Baker explains. “I think that what has changed is my understanding of the profundity of the disconnect between what we’re told and the reality of what’s going on.”
Before writing his book, Baker says, he shied away from investigating certain controversial topics, wary of being labeled a nut or a crackpot. Now, the gloves are off. He’s published stories about ties between the 9/11 hijackers and Saudi Arabia’s ruling class and has aired his suspicions about the collapse of World Trade Center Building 7. In March 2010, he dove headfirst into the deep end and accepted an invitation to the Treason in America Conference, a gathering of 9/11 truthers. Speaking into microphones held together with electrical tape in front of a podium at the Valley Forge Convention Center in Pennsylvania, he chided the mainstream media and said the 9/11 commission had “no credibility.” Citing as precedent Operation Northwoods—a plan approved in 1962 by the Joint Chiefs of Staff to commit acts of terrorism against Americans and blame Cuba in order to justify invading the tiny island—Baker sounded open to the possibility that 9/11 was an inside job.
Being subversive or an outsider has never been easy in America, and Baker says he’s paid a price for his views, rattling off job offers he never received or accolades that never came his way. “When you start diverging more and more from the choir, it makes it much more difficult to be accepted by traditional institutions,” he says. “There are going to be fewer and fewer invitations to sit on panels for Columbia Journalism School.”
You might not think it based on Baker’s willingness to stick his neck out, but he is keenly self-aware and sensitive to the idea that I’ll portray him as “kooky.” Baker is not a kook. Nor is he exactly pure. When weighing inconclusive evidence, he often puts his thumb on the scale in order to believe the worst about his targets: the Bushes, G-men, oil executives, and administration officials. But there are worse journalistic crimes, Baker says, pointing out that established media outlets merely regurgitated information after 9/11 without investigating the administration’s reasons for waging war in Iraq.
Digging in the margins, Baker sometimes uncovers troubling connections long after his journalistic counterparts have given up the fight. Building on reports that a Saudi family living in Florida had been in contact with one of the hijackers prior to the attack on the World Trade Center, Baker reported in 2011 that the family also had ties to a high-ranking member of the Saudi royal house. At the time, tying the Saudi state directly to a family that appeared to be complicit in the attack seemed like a lunatic-fringe claim. Baker was reporting on an angle that the mainstream American media had long considered dead.
Was he onto something? It’s hard to say. Two years later, in December 2013, the New York Post ran an op-ed from a conservative columnist, “Inside the Saudi 9/11 Coverup,” that outlined numerous connections between the Saudi government and the hijackers, and rebutted the idea that “al Qaeda acted alone, with no state sponsors.” The article focused on 28 pages that then-President Bush had censored from the 9/11 Commission Report that purportedly detailed Saudi government support for the attacks. Former Senator Bob Graham, of Florida, who led a joint investigation into 9/11 as chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, had read those secretive 28 pages. He has since publicly sounded the alarm about Saudi state support for the 9/11 attack—and, addressing whether the FBI attempted to cover up the Florida connection, called the episode “confounding, troubling, disturbing…one of the few things [over which] I have trouble going to sleep at night.”
Three years ago—in a kind of self-imposed exile from the mainstream media—Baker began running WhoWhatWhy full time, trying to bootstrap his startup into a full-fledged newsgathering operation. He started from the top down, assembling a laundry list of notorious provocateurs and seasoned investigative reporters on his editorial advisory council, including Daniel Ellsberg and Sydney Schanberg, who won the Pulitzer Prize after reporting on the “Killing Fields” of Cambodia for the New York Times. Neither actually writes for the site. Instead, Baker’s volunteer social-media editors include a “rocker” in L.A. and a guy with a master’s degree in history who parks cars for a living. “It is,” says Baker, “a very motley crew.”
When I meet up with Baker in the East Village, WhoWhatWhy is in growth mode. The organization’s last publicly available tax filing shows it made $277,565 in revenue in 2013. Baker says the 2014 haul will be closer to half a million dollars, nearly doubling its take in less than a year. That’s an impressive revenue gain, given that the site—up until recently—had a decidedly Web 1.0 look and attracts only about 80,000 unique monthly visitors. There’s no question that the marathon-bombing story has been good for business, driving up readership and donations. Baker has thrown more resources at the bombings than any other story his team reports, and he sees the coverage as a model for the treatment he will give other topics in the future.
So far, WhoWhatWhy has published more than two dozen lengthy articles about the marathon bombings. But rather than offer explosive new revelations, most of the stories reexamine the record of events surrounding the explosions and attempt to pick apart the official story. In sometimes excruciating detail, the site has examined inconsistencies in the various accounts of the carjacking of “Danny,” the motives for Danny’s anonymity, and the motive given for the Tsarnaevs’ alleged murder of MIT police officer Sean Collier. Baker also argues a circumstantial case that the FBI recruited Tamerlan as an agent or informant. (The bureau, it goes without saying, has categorically denied that assertion.) Occasionally, Baker’s site has included predictions that have proven dead wrong—such as the suggestion that the marathon bombings would bring Russia and the United States closer together.
It’s not surprising that Baker’s skepticism is met with eye-rolls, or worse. “If there is one lesson that I’ve learned from my experience in nearly three decades of doing this reporting,” says Weiner, the Pulitzer winner, “it’s that you should never chalk up to conspiracy what you can reliably attribute to stupidity. Because stupidity is a much more powerful force in the course of human events, and I think that the Boston bombing massacres were carried out by a couple of stoned knuckleheads who wanted to make their mark on the world.”
WGBH’s Emily Rooney, who investigated the Church of Scientology alongside Baker in the 1990s for a Fox newsmagazine program that never got off the ground, says she has tremendous respect for Baker and is “always curious to see the kinds of questions he raises.” Rooney, however, does not share his concerns about a cover-up regarding the marathon bombings—and took him to task on her TV show, Greater Boston, last year. “He’s just challenged the work of other journalists,” she says, “but without actually offering up the evidence that there is indeed another shoe on this. Sometimes I think you have to do more than raise the question, especially journalistically. I think in some ways Russ has made sort of a shtick about being contrary or skeptical in some areas where it’s not warranted. Maybe it’s the only way he can sell something.”
Baker’s hard-driving skepticism can take a dark turn, particularly when he talks about Boston’s reaction to the marathon bombings. Where others saw solidarity and strength in slogans like “Boston Strong,” Baker sees only propaganda. “Boston is not strong,” he declares. “Boston is scared shitless.”
With quotes like that, it’s probably a good thing that Baker doesn’t live here. “It’s hard to dignify nut jobs like this with responses,” says David “El Pres” Portnoy, the founder of Barstool Sports, which has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for bombing victims selling “Boston Strong” and “This Is Our Fucking City” shirts. “It’s just so stupid I don’t know how you even address it in a logical manner.”
Baker, though, has little time for critics. Like many people operating on the fringe, he believes most of them privately agree with him and only criticize him publicly to maintain their standing in establishment circles. I ask him if he worries that his punditry and theorizing could upset the bombing victims and their families. Does he care that things he writes could be upsetting to Sean Collier’s mother? “Of course I care about Sean Collier’s mother, but I care about everybody’s mother,” he responds. “What I find hypocritical about journalism is that they think that somebody’s mother is a basis not for telling the truth. I would hope that Sean Collier’s mother would not want to be part of a lie.”
Over the past 15 years, Baker has never been afraid to make outrageous claims—and occasionally, he’s even been right. He was among the first reporters to make Americans aware of the growing Hutu-Tutsi violence in Africa, six years before the genocide erupted in Rwanda. And he was one of the first journalists brave enough to accurately report the fact that key members of George W. Bush’s administration were planning to invade Iraq long before the attack on the World Trade Center. Which begs the question: With accused marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s trial scheduled for later this month, which is more dangerous, listening to Russ Baker, or ignoring him?