By the time Wayne Simmons went on Fox News last March for what would end up being his final appearance, viewers knew what to expect. “This president clearly has absolutely no idea what he is talking about,” Simmons said of President Obama’s handling of ISIS. Simmons had made guest appearances on Fox more than a hundred times as a “former CIA operative,” and certainly looked the part: white mustache, neck bulging out of his dress shirt, a handshake “so hard, he can crush you with it,” as one Fox host put it. Beyond offering his expertise as an intelligence officer, he had become particularly adept at serving up hawkish red meat to the network’s audience. “We could end this in a week,” he went on, suggesting that the United States run “thousands of sorties” against ISIS. “They would all be dead.”
Simmons was largely anonymous when he first appeared on Fox, in 2002, but he soon became a regular face on the network, alongside a cast of retired military officers who, like Simmons, had been recruited into the Pentagon’s “military-analysts program.” The initiative invited retired officers who had made names for themselves as television-news commentators to attend regular briefings from Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and to make trips to Iraq and Guantanamo Bay. In 2009, The New York Times won a Pulitzer Prize for its report on how the Pentagon used the analysts to build public support for the war in Iraq. The program disbanded, and many of those involved tried to distance themselves from it. But Simmons boasted of his connection as a way to bolster his bona fides, even mentioning it in his Amazon author biography. In 2012, Simmons co-wrote The Natanz Directive, a novel about a retired CIA agent called back for one last op. When the book was published, Rumsfeld contributed a blurb: “Wayne Simmons doesn’t just write it. He’s lived it.”
But according to prosecutors, Simmons was living a lie. Last October, the government charged him with multiple counts of fraud, saying he had never worked for the CIA at all. Prosecutors alleged that Simmons used his supposed intelligence experience not only to secure time on Fox and an audience with Rumsfeld, but also to obtain work with defense contractors, including deployment to a military base in Afghanistan. He was also charged with bilking $125,000 from a woman, with whom prosecutors say he was romantically involved, in a real-estate investment that did not exist. He has pleaded not guilty to the charges, and his trial is scheduled to begin February 23rd. If convicted, he will likely face several years in prison.
Simmons claimed to have spent 27 years with the CIA, but Paul Nathanson, the assistant U.S. attorney prosecuting the case, said in a court filing that Simmons “never had any association whatsoever with the CIA.” (The CIA declined to comment – as a rule, it never confirms or denies agents – but said it is “working closely with the Justice Department on this matter.”) Instead, prosecutors say Simmons spent those 27 years doing just about everything else: He ran a limousine service, a gambling operation and an AIDS-testing clinic; worked for a hot-tub business, a carpeting company and a nightclub; and briefly played defensive back for the New Orleans Saints. Along the way, he accrued criminal convictions, including multiple DUIs, plus charges for weapons possession and assault, and an arrest for attacking a cabdriver in Annapolis, Maryland, in 2007. “Fuck you, you can’t do shit to me – do you know who I am?” Simmons told a cop, according to a police report, before insisting that he was CIA, and that the cabbie, who was Pakistani, had a bomb. A police dog found no explosives, and a CIA representative told the cops to take whatever actions they deemed necessary.
All the while, Simmons continued to get himself guest slots on Fox. The Pentagon’s military-analysts program had helped boost his profile, along with that of others who made extreme proclamations on air: Last year, retired Adm. James Lyons said the Muslim Brotherhood had “carte-blanche entry into the White House,” and retired Lt. Gen. Thomas McInerney supported Donald Trump’s freeze on Muslim immigrants. All three men helped push right-wing theories about Benghazi into the mainstream. “If you have two generals and a former CIA officer saying these things, they give legitimacy and heft to what would have been a partisan attack,” says Angelo Carusone of Media Matters for America, a progressive media watchdog. “It has an effect on the way voters behave.”
And yet, for years, Simmons’ radical positions, his allegedly fabricated credentials and his off-camera behavior never got him thrown off the air. Just a week after the incident with the cabbie, Simmons received a note of congratulations from the Pentagon (“Saw you on Fox yesterday. Impressive, as always”) and was invited to join a conference call with Gen. David Petraeus. “He’s always using this supposed CIA affiliation as a trump card,” Nathanson said. “Frankly, it often works.”
Wayne Simmons has lived almost his entire life in Maryland, where he and his wife, who passed away in 2012, raised two children. Around Annapolis, he was known as both a good neighbor and someone prone to the occasional barroom dispute over politics. “He was always a gentleman, even if he seemed a little intense or on edge,” says William Cooke, an Annapolis attorney. “I took the guy at his word.” (Simmons declined to comment on the record for this story.)
Simmons was certainly a likely candidate for service. His mother worked as an FBI fingerprint specialist, and his father served in the Navy with enough distinction that in 1996 his death was marked with a tribute on the Senate floor. Simmons’ sister became a senior official in the Defense Department during the second Bush administration, and his son is in the Secret Service.
Simmons claims that his own service began in 1973, when he briefly enlisted in the Navy, before spending nearly three decades with the CIA. He has said he “spearheaded deep-cover intel ops against some of the world’s most dangerous drug cartels and arms smugglers” before he retired in 2000.
After 9/11, Fox, like every news outlet, was desperate for analysts capable of talking knowledgably about the War on Terror, so the chance to put a former CIA officer on the air would have been alluring. (Fox declined to participate for this article.) The network has not explained how Simmons first appeared on the channel, or how he passed their vetting process, but one possible explanation lies in the fact that his early appearances were almost all on Saturday nights. “With weekends, the vetting goes away, and the pre-interview goes away, and just general thought of any kind goes away, other than ‘Who can I get in front of a camera?'” claims a former Fox producer. Once a guest proves capable, bookers for prominent time slots often snap them up when breaking news hits, and have little reason to question their credentials. “If you want to play Talented Mr. Ripley, once you get inside, nobody’s going to think twice about whether you should be there,” the ex-Fox producer says.
By 2004, Simmons was appearing on a sometimes-weekly basis, often in prime-time, which caught the eye of the Pentagon’s public-affairs office. Two years earlier, in October 2002, it had created the military-analysts program to help build support for the War in Iraq. “It was really about giving people with on-the-ground experience a chance to get more information,” says Allison Barber, who oversaw the program as deputy assistant secretary of Defense. Critics, however, saw it as a way to disperse talking points to ostensibly neutral officers with a national television audience. Many also had undisclosed ties to defense contractors.
When Simmons began talking with the Pentagon, in 2004, the war was going poorly. An Iraqi insurgency had led to brutal fighting, and the Abu Ghraib scandal had corroded support. The Pentagon was in need of advocates, and the military analysts, which the Pentagon referred to as “surrogates,” had nearly tripled to more than 50. Both former and current Pentagon officials said there was little vetting of potential analysts, on the presumption that the networks had done their due diligence. Barber cited the fact that Simmons “was pretty prolific on television” as his primary qualification, and said credentials were less important than the ability to reach a large audience. Simmons’ response to a Pentagon official’s inquiry about the program didn’t suggest he expected a stringent process: “There is quite a bit of info under ‘Wayne Simmons and CIA’ on a Google search.”
Simmons jumped at the chance to join the program and was soon invited on a trip to Guantanamo Bay after a 2005 Fox appearance in which he defended the treatment of detainees there. “Doesn’t giving them a Koran simply add fuel to an ideological fire already burning out of control?” Simmons asked a Guantanamo officer at one point, according to a written report from a retired Army officer on the trip.
Simmons became a regular at the program’s roundtables and conference calls, and he often e-mailed the group with his views on the latest political news. “Wayne is one that we can turn to and engage fully,” a Pentagon official told his colleagues, after Simmons e-mailed to say he “would love to backhand” some retired generals who had criticized Secretary Rumsfeld. In 2006, Simmons was present when President Bush signed the Military Commissions Act, which gave the executive branch powers to detain prisoners indefinitely, and the Pentagon listed him as one of its “most prolific retired military analysts.” One official e-mailed a colleague to say, “Let’s make sure we get Wayne Simmons to Iraq.”
If there was a reason to raise an eyebrow at Simmons’ claims, it may have been the fact that a low-level CIA operator wanted to go on television at all. “Most operators don’t want to go on TV,” one former Navy Seal tells me. “They want to get paid $200,000 as a security contractor.” While some members of the military-analysts program had contracts that offered as much as $1,000 per appearance, Simmons was never paid by Fox, and he supported himself through a variety of businesses, including launching Simmons Air, a commuter airline in Maryland. (Simmons got a $20,000 rookie contract with the New Orleans Saints in the summer of 1978, when he was supposedly five years into his CIA career, but was cut that September.) Eventually, Simmons tried to capitalize on his public profile, becoming a regular on the local Republican speakers’ circuit and landing a book deal.
He also tried to work for the government, according to prosecutors. In 2008, after his airline collapsed, Simmons secured work with BAE Systems, a government contractor that sent him to Fort Leavenworth for training as a “Human Terrain System Team leader,” until he was forced to resign due to “performance problems.” A year later, he was rejected from another contracting job after the State Department found his claims about working for the CIA were false. In 2010, a third contractor sent Simmons to Afghanistan as a “senior intelligence adviser,” but he was sent home after his interim security clearance was revoked. (None of the contractors responded to requests for comment.)
Yet even though the government was now aware of Simmons’ fabricated credentials, nobody told Fox, where he continued to appear, often as a partisan advocate: In various appearances, he called Barack Obama a “boy king” and Nancy Pelosi a “pathological liar.” Simmons’ comments – along with those made by other fringe military-analysts members who remained on air – seeped into the mainstream; in 2013, he became a member of the Citizens’ Commission on Benghazi, which led the charge to keep the attacks in the news. “A lot of his segments didn’t just contain misinformation about Benghazi – he repeated already-debunked falsehoods,” says Carusone of Media Matters.
But as Simmons’ profile rose, some around him began to have doubts. In 2010, he was introduced to Kent Clizbe, a former CIA case officer. When they met, Clizbe said that Simmons bragged about his work busting drug cartels, but he was short on details. “Within a couple of minutes, I knew he was a fraud,” Clizbe says. “You can’t bullshit a bullshitter.”
Clizbe says he relayed his concern to a number of people who knew Simmons, and word made its way to a Washington Times reporter who asked Simmons about the charges. “Some of my colleagues are convinced that it is related to my outspoken membership on the Citizens’ Commission on Benghazi,” Simmons wrote to the reporter in late 2013, suggesting a smear campaign. “It is angering and pathetic.” (The Times decided against publishing the story after being told that Simmons had been granted security clearances and sent to Afghanistan.)
But as the FBI began looking into Simmons, he made little effort to lower his profile. (The government declined to say what prompted its investigation.) Last February, the same month in which Simmons’ lawyer says he and Simmons met with government attorneys to discuss his client’s alleged CIA past, Simmons appeared on Fox three times. In one segment, he repeated a spurious claim that there were “at least 19 paramilitary Muslim training facilities in the United States.”
“Wow,” replied the host Neil Cavuto, without challenging Simmons.
“They’re using paramilitary exercises to plan and execute these types of operations all over the United States,” Simmons said. “And when it happens, it will just be you and I saying, ‘We told you so.'”
For now, Simmons lives in a large home, which is just another facade shielding a murkier reality. None of his business ventures panned out. Prosecutors say that he hasn’t made a mortgage payment since 2010, and that his car was recently repossessed – not that it would do him much good anyway. According to the terms of his bail, he is allowed to leave his house to care for his horses and visit the doctor or his attorney, but he is otherwise required to stay at home under the supervision of his adult daughter. His request to join his family at several Christmas gatherings was denied.
If Simmons is shown to have fabricated his CIA experience, he won’t be the first – in 2013, a former EPA official admitted to stealing $900,000 from the government by pretending to work for the agency – but he will be one of the most prominent. “Why didn’t someone at the CIA, or some retired CIA person, go to Fox?” says Robert Baer, a former CIA case officer and journalist. “There’s plenty of fakes out there. But most of them don’t get on TV.” The simplest answer might be that no one had much incentive to probe Simmons’ past. Once he started appearing on Fox and had an audience, he became useful to the government; once he was useful to the government and was granted an audience with Rumsfeld, he became even more useful to Fox.
But while Simmons may have been the most egregious charlatan, he wasn’t the only fringe member of the shuttered military-analysts program who stayed on the air. “The difference between Simmons and the more legitimate people probably isn’t all that great,” says Robert Entman, a professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University. “He may have said more outlandish things, but totally legitimate spokespeople said many misleading things too.” Just last year, retired Maj. Gen. Paul Vallely, who participated in the military-analysts program, said that President Obama was “intentionally weakening our military,” which sounded almost reasonable next to comments from Tom McInerney, who insisted on Fox News that terrorists had flown the disappeared Malaysia Airlines 370 to Pakistan.
Not every conspiracy theory takes, of course, but as the Benghazi controversy shows, a few people with impressive-sounding titles can go a dangerously long way. Simmons rose from obscurity to prime time on Fox News, which burnished his credentials in the eyes of the government, which raised his profile on Fox and with the public at large even further. If only someone had listened to Simmons in 2007, when he went on Fox to criticize the hiring of a CIA agent who had entered the United States illegally. “Without knowing who we’re hiring and who we are employing to protect our nation, we are in big, big trouble,” Simmons said. “Somewhere along the line … whoever was responsible for the background check at the FBI really fell down.”