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Are Reporters Targets of Terrorists?; Should Pentagon Run a Disinformation Campaign?; Should Press Have Access to Detainees in Cuba?

Aired February 23, 2002 - 18:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where we turn a critical lens on the media. I'm Howard Kurtz.

Ahead we'll have a live report from Cuba on the restrictions facing journalists on Guantanamo Bay.

But first, the terrible news came Thursday afternoon. Kidnapped "Wall Street Journal" reporter Daniel Pearl was dead, brutally murdered by his captors. The evidence on a grizzly videotape viewed by U.S. and Pakistani officials. The paper's managing editor spoke briefly to reporters.


PAUL STEIGER, WALL STREET JOURNAL: We are heartbroken at his death. Danny was an outstanding colleague, a great reporter, and a dear friend of many at the "Journal". His murder is an act of barbarism. It makes a mockery of everything that Danny's kidnappers claim to believe in.


KURTZ: The "Wall Street Journal" wrote Friday the abduction and death mean that the "Journal" has lost one of its premiere foreign correspondents who was noted for his lively eye for detail and the human side of complex international problems. The paper also quoted from a statement released by Pearl's family.

"Danny's senseless murder lies beyond our comprehension. Danny was a beloved son, a brother, an uncle, a husband, and a father to a child who will never know him".

Pearl's wife Mariane, who had issued appeals for her husband's release is expecting their child in May. "The New York Times" reported today that the chief suspect in the Pearl case says he was killed as part of a wider plot that was to include the U.S. Consulate in Karachi, Pakistan.

Well joining us now Donatella Lorch of "Newsweek" who has spent many years reporting from Afghanistan, Pakistan and other dangerous spots around the world, and Michael Getler, former editor of the "International Herald Tribune". He spent many years as "The Washington Post" foreign editor and is now the paper's ombudsman.

Donatella Lorch, are journalists now the new targets in this age of terrorism?

DONATELLA LORCH, NEWSWEEK: I think in many ways they are because they're out there. They're in many places where the U.S. military is not. They're out digging for the story. They're -- it's in this global environment of news. They're -- the story's everywhere and so you'll find it in Karachi. You'll find it in the Philippines. You'll find it in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and there are many more of us out there.

KURTZ: I believe that Danny Pearl was singled out because he was a journalist and because they knew that this kidnapping and eventual murder would get global publicity in a way that say kidnapping an American businessman would not. Do you agree?

LORCH: Probably yes. I mean I think it's very difficult at this point and time to know exactly why he's -- was he singled out because he was an American? Yes, probably because he was a journalist as well, because he was Jewish. It's unclear whether they knew that ahead of time before they kidnapped him. I think that when they had him they definitely wanted to make a huge statement, and the videotape is an example of that. It's brutal and horrible and vicious, and ...

KURTZ: And the initial pictures, of course, also showed that they were in effect playing to the world's cameras.

Michael Getler, if you were again the foreign editor, would you urge your reporters to be a lot more careful in places like Karachi or maybe get the hell out of there?

MICHAEL GETLER, THE WASHINGTON POST: Not get out, but certainly be more careful. They generally are careful, but this has obviously been a grizzly and terrible alarm bell for foreign correspondents. Newspaper people, I think, particularly are vulnerable because they usually travel alone. They don't have the large apparatus that perhaps a TV crew would have with them.

I think now reporters will one, they're all -- that they'll be alert, everything ...


KURTZ: Should they stop traveling alone? Should reporters ...


GETLER: Absolutely. Absolutely.


KURTZ: ... travel in pairs?

GETLER: They should travel either with colleagues or with some trusted translators or body -- some of them have bodyguards there, but clearly not alone, not at night. And they need to keep in touch and obviously talk over everything with their editors back in New York or Washington or wherever.

KURTZ: Wherever, yes.



LORCH: Danny was -- but Danny Pearl was very cautious too.

KURTZ: He was not a cowboy ...


KURTZ: ... for a foreign correspondent.

LORCH: No. He wasn't alone. As a matter of fact in November when he was in Peshawar when everyone was trying to get into Afghanistan he said, you know, there's no need for me to go to Afghanistan. You know, we're -- it's -- we already, the "Wall Street Journal" has it covered from there, and my wife is pregnant. It's my first child. He wasn't doing anything that any of us wouldn't have done. He thought he was working on an exclusive story.

He was meeting in a very public place, a very well known restaurant in Karachi. How may times have any of us not being there where you go to one place, the guy meets you and he says listen, it's not going to happen here. It's going to happen just a few blocks from here. Why don't you ...

KURTZ: Has that happened to you?

LORCH: Yes, many times.

KURTZ: And have you gone with somebody to an undisclosed location somewhere where you weren't in a public place, weren't in a restaurant?


KURTZ: Would you do it again?

LORCH: Right at this point in time, no, I would be much more careful. Definitely the thoughts of what happened to Daniel Pearl are very much on my mind, on my colleague's mind. He did not do anything that was untoward in terms of rushness, in terms of being a cowboy, and that's the really tragic part about all of this.

GETLER: It's interesting, too, Howard, that this is not a war correspondent, in a sense. He was working on an investigative article that the "Journal" ...


GETLER: Right. Exactly. "Journal" has done a number of good ones as have other papers on this subject, and it will be interesting to see what the impact will be on news organizations who are working on those kinds of stories in the region -- stories that are very sensitive, which may involve meeting with people that are being watched and ...

KURTZ: The Pakistani kidnappers orginially made the rather ludicrous claim that Pearl was a CIA agent or somehow had some ties to the U.S. government. But when these kinds of incidents happen, and there have been other kidnappings of journalists, should news organizations ask the government for help?

GETLER: Yes, I think in terms of information that's where they're crucial. They have all kinds of intelligence, resources that news organizations don't have. We don't have satellites, and we don't have underground agents. So yes, they need help. The government is quite good, also, at expressing outrage and demand for a person's release, so I think the government does as much as possible, but the news organizations are not afraid to ask for that help.

LORCH: I think a big question should also be whether other news organizations should be there publicizing the fact there is a journalist that has been kidnapped. In Somalia in 1994, AP -- an AP journalist was kidnapped. Her plight was not publicized at all, in large part because AP did not want it publicized.

And she was released after three and a half weeks. Now would these kidnappers have acted any differently if there had been a pact between all the news organizations -- no we will not publicize the fact that Daniel Pearl was kidnapped. However, I mean here these guys are obviously incredibly vicious. They had an agenda. They were going to go all the way. I mean that's -- we get the impression right now.

KURTZ: Right. But there has been some criticism, because this has basically been the lead story for the better part of a month that maybe journalists are giving this more attention because it's one of us, because we can relate. We can identify with the plight of a journalist as opposed to someone else that might have been captured. I don't have any great problem with that, but some people are saying maybe a little bit out of proportion.

LORCH: I don't think so. I think that if an American businessman had been captured in Karachi and videotapes of him with a gun to his head had been, you know, plastered all over the world that we would have done -- just paid just as much attention as if it was one of our colleagues.

It's just a personal -- for us it's just the personal feelings that we have right now, that he's been killed and everything that he has gone through. I mean we've been there. We've done that, and I and I know my colleagues feel horribly about what happened.

GETLER: I think also that the journalist in this case is a representative of a large news organization. It could carry ...

(CROSSTALK) GETLER: ... represented a large Associated Press news agency.

KURTZ: Seven years in captivity ...

GETLER: Exactly. Exactly. So they're not just individuals. They do represent quite a large audience, as well in the case of "Wall Street Journal", one of the most well known titles in the world.

KURTZ: Yes and Danny Pearl was there, as are many foreign correspondents representing all of us trying ...

GETLER: Right.

KURTZ: ... to get information ...

GETLER: Exactly.

KURTZ: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) public, and I think that his memory will live on ...

GETLER: Absolutely.

KURTZ: ... because of what happened, the terrible tragedy that we have all spent a lot of time thinking about.

We want to move onto another subject now and joining us now -- do we have Bob Franken -- in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. CNN national correspondent Bob Franken who has spent much of his time covering the Pentagon in the months since September 11, and Pamela Hess, Pentagon correspondent for "United Press International".

Big controversy at the Pentagon this week as "The New York Times" reported that the military's Office of Strategic Influence might engage in this information known less diplomatically as lying with media organizations overseas. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was questioned about this during a visit to the Olympics.


DONALD RUMSFELD, DEFENSE SECRETARY: Government officials, the Department of Defense, this secretary and the people that work with me tell the American people and the people of the world the truth and to the extent anyone says anything that at anytime proves to have been not accurate they correct it at the earliest possible opportunity.


KURTZ: Pam Hess, "The New York Times" report said that the -- this Pentagon office might use front groups to plant information elsewhere or run what are called "black campaigns" featuring this information. Do you have any problem with that?

PAMELA HESS, UNITED PRESS INTERNATIONAL: I would have a problem with it if it were going to happen. What we've seen actually, the trajectory of this office and this story over the course of the week has been really interesting. When "The New York Times" reported what they had was documents and charts and interviews with folks. Here's the stuff that we're thinking about, and as the rest of the press jumped on the story and it developed over the week, you saw the scope of the office getting ratcheted back and back and back.

I can't say that this was what they intended to do and they changed it, but it certainly -- the attention focused the point of the office to the point that they're now saying that it would only be technical or battlefield deception that they're working on. I gather that Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, who's been instrumental in the creation of this, spent most of, I think, Wednesday drafting a very careful statement that was put out by the Pentagon.

KURTZ: All in reaction to the media coverage ...

HESS: Exactly.

KURTZ: Let's bring in Bob Franken. Do you think that even the mire consideration of what has been popularly labeled disinformation could undermine the Pentagon's credibility?

BOB FRANKEN, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well the credibility is in the eyes of the beholder. It's not only a question of what the Pentagon might put out and might be considering as putting out disinformation, it's also the mindset over deciding what can be covered.

We've been told repeatedly, when we've tried to show things on video here, part of the equation is whether it would make the Pentagon look good or bad. And many people would argue that, in fact, that really sort of goes against the idea of freedom of information, that the United States, a free country, its citizens have a right to see something whether it makes a particular government look good or bad.

KURTZ: We'll come back to the situation in Cuba in just a few moments Bob Franken. But Michael Getler, if the Pentagon does put out any false reports to overseas news organizations, couldn't that in this age of instant electronics find its way back to American news organizations, which what's called "blowback".

GETLER: Absolutely. I thought one of the really interesting things that Rumsfeld has several times said publicly, warned his department employees not to leak to the press and in this case, the leak, whoever leaked this to "The New York Times", I think, did Rumsfeld a favor and ...


GETLER: ... the country a favor -- yes, in the sense of exposing this and causing all this publicity because my feeling is those things, once you engage in disinformation, you undermine the credibility of the American government. You put -you put lots of people in danger including reporters who convey this information. And it always -- I think it comes back to haunt you and hits you just like a boomerang.

KURTZ: Speaking of credibility Donatella Lorch, the Defense Secretary Rumsfeld admitted this week that 16 people who were killed during a bombing raid in Afghanistan were not Taliban as the Pentagon had originally claimed and as newspapers have been saying for weeks. But Rumsfeld said the U.S. didn't do anything wrong. How can killing the wrong guys not be a mistake?

LORCH: I think the Pentagon could always say, you know, war is never clean, and they were, I think, sort of hoping that collateral damage, i.e. the civilian deaths were going to disappear really quickly. And now all of a sudden the reporters have gotten access -- it's a very dangerous place, Afghanistan. They've gotten to the place of many bombings, and they're saying, wait a second, we have reports that X number of children are being killed, X number of civilians.

And I think he's trying to react to it without admitting to anything. Because you can't go out there and say hey, I'm the secretary of defense, we've gone out and we've killed all these innocent people. Though I have heard that the people that were killed, the families of the people that were killed in certain bombings have received monetary damages.

KURTZ: Yes ...


KURTZ: ... which I would say is an acknowledgement ...



KURTZ: Pamela Hess, what about the -- when reporters, American journalists are reporting on civilian casualties, when they're reporting on possible disinformation schemes. I can hear a lot of people out there saying, you know, you people are unpatriotic. Why don't you give the Pentagon a break? They're trying to run a war.

HESS: It's -- it is one of the problems that we -- that we have to deal with, but we can't give the Pentagon a break. The only thing that really stands between the United States and places like Afghanistan or Pakistan to some extent is the fact there is so much sunshine on what the government does, and we're the ones that provide it, and I think that the death of Danny Pearl really underscored the honor of the profession. And that we do dangerous work, and we do it all for one reason, which is to let the truth come out, and we take great risks, not me so much, but other people take ...


HESS: ... great risks ...

KURTZ: Bob Franken, we've got about 30 seconds. Do you think that journalists should have earlier in this war effort been reporting more aggressively on things like civilian casualties, which is always not impossible given to the state of the war.

FRANKEN: Well it was -- if it was impossible, I mean the information is being managed from up top -- I can tell you from the experience here at Guantanamo, the public information people and the commanding general, really are favorable toward reporting, but often times when they run it up to the upper echelons, the upper echelons say no, for reasons that many people here consider more political, more propaganda reasons than anything else.

KURTZ: Well like you said a moment earlier, whether it makes the Pentagon look good or bad, I'm not so sure that should be the standard, but apparently that is at least a small factor in the reporting.

Well when we come back, Bob Franken will tell us just what reporters can and cannot do at the military prison in camp in Guantanamo Bay.



Bob Franken in Cuba, are you -- this is your second trip, I believe, to Guantanamo Bay. Are you allowed to photograph the detainees, to interview them? What kind of access do you have, and if you have very limited access, as we've been led to believe, isn't that frustrating?

FRANKEN: Well first of all, it's the fourth trip, not just ...


KURTZ: Excuse me for cutting out the other two.

FRANKEN: There's quite a bit of frustration, but I have to say, first of all, I covered the Iraq war 10 years ago as a member of the Pentagon pool, and the restrictions were quite onerous then, and in fairness the orders from the top have allowed us much more access, no censorship whatever over what we're saying as evidence by the fact that I'm here a lot.

But, is it frustrating? Yes, because there is sort of this on- again, off-again adherence to the Geneva Convention, and one of its provisions conveniently is the one that does not allow us to get close to the detainees and shoot their faces to display them, which would be inconsistent with the Geneva Convention, which by the way we know is not being literally applied.

There are often times occasions when it is the belief of many of us that the American people or the world, people of the world be served by getting an accurate picture of what was going on, for instance, when they -- detainees were brought in by plane. That was something that would have been, quite frankly, dramatic, but also something that would have been well worth seeing.

And here's what's interesting. Many of the things that the Pentagon, people who have not been on the ground here, don't let people see would probably serve their cause quite well. The fact of the manner is that what we've been able to see visually leaves no indication of any significant mistreatment of the detainees or anything like that, and I do believe that closer access would probably serve the cause of the people who are arguing that the United States ...


FRANKEN: ... is doing itself proud here.

KURTZ: OK. We're a little short on time. Michael Getler, are reporters in such situations reduced to kind of being spoon-fed from what they can get from official sources?

GETLER: Well no, they will find a way to cover whatever the event is in the best possible way. That's why you're seeing a lot of stories now of reporters in a very dangerous situation making their way to villages in Afghanistan to try to find out what did happen, and so they will -- they will report this story one way or the other. I think in the Pentagon's case that they basically do what they feel needs to be done without allowing any access, and that there is some access provided afterwards to those forces ...

KURTZ: Right.

GETLER: ... but after the event -- it's well after the event.

KURTZ: What does it tell us about the Pentagon's view of the press, Donatella Lorch, that all this information seems to be so tightly controlled?

LORCH: They don't trust us, and I think ...


LORCH: ... I think that, you know, the fact that they are allowing reality TV, ABC, Disney, to go out and have access to the troops for -- to do a long show of the troops in Afghanistan is very disconcerting. And I think also the choice of the -- of the title, you know, the Office of Strategic Initiative, I mean it's very similar to the Taliban Ministry of the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice.

KURTZ: I hope we can prevent that.

Pam Hess, does the Pentagon have a legitimate security and military concern in adopting these restrictions, or is it really in part about protecting its image?

HESS: It's -- I think it's -- actually a great deal of it is security concerns. The problem with that ...

KURTZ: So they're getting a bum rap you believe ...


HESS: I wouldn't say they're getting a bum rap. I think it's the natural tension that has to exist between the press, who will always push for more on the Pentagon, who wants to air on the side of caution, and I -- and I think eventually it works out. During the immediate weeks and months after September 11, there was definitely a sense that they were spoon-feeding, but eventually I think the press does balance things out by getting people into places and checking out for themselves to see what's happening.

KURTZ: And we unfortunately we have to leave it there. Pam Hess, Bob Franken in Cuba, Michael Getler, Donatella Lorch, thanks so very much for joining us.

When we come back, CNN's Nic Robertson on the dangers of being a journalist in a war zone.


KURTZ: Before we go, return to the Daniel Pearl tragedy, which has forced even the most experienced, the most battle-hardened correspondents to reexamine what they do and to wonder about the risks they are taking. Here's a report from CNN's Nic Robertson in Afghanistan.


NIC ROBERTSON, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): There are days when as a journalist things seem to be going pretty well, like this day, the Muslim celebration of Eid in Kandahar, a day likened by some to Christmas. The large number of armed men around, an indication, however, we should be on our guard.

On the streets all but official weapons are banned. One can't help feeling those left to enforce it might struggle if push comes to shove. It's clear if you're in trouble you'll likely be on your own. Every day judgments of whom to follow or trust when they say they have a story for you are magnified, the further from safety you feel.

In Afghanistan, in the months since September the 11th, eight journalists have been killed. Three were caught in a nighttime ambush as they traveled with advancing anti-Taliban troops. A Norwegian robbed and shot in his hotel in the northern town of Talican (ph). Four more experienced reporters murdered in broad daylight as they drove along a major highway.

No one will argue the risks are not there -- the question is how to minimize them. Veteran war reporter Kurt Shwartz (ph) and seasoned combat photographer Magail Gil (ph) thought they had done just that by taking armed guards with them on a dangerous drive in Sierra Leone the summer before last.

They were killed in an ambush on the road. During the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, journalists who could took to traveling in armored cars as they appeared to become targets of opportunity for snipers. Although many newsmen and women feared that as purveyors of truth those bent on doing evil saw them as getting in the way.

Each conflict is different in its latent threats on how to deal with them. Each day brings a different sense of vulnerability and each time a valued colleague is killed, doubt and apprehension rush to fill the void left by confidence. We honor them by doing what we all enjoyed, finding and telling the truth.


KURTZ: Sobering news indeed from Nic Robertson.

Well that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz.




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