War Stories

Wire-Guided Government

UPI breaks a big terror story—and maybe new ground.

The UPI wire service has a fascinating item by experienced stringer Martin Arostegui, who has been reporting from the remote eastern Afghan mountain village of Kote Tangai, near where a much-disputed CIA-directed Hellfire missile recently killed three men. (That no paper has thus far pursued the two-day-old story doesn’t impugn its credibility—the big dailies hate to be seen chasing the wires.) Arostegui’s dispatch is sourced to a local informant who is a pre-Taliban intelligence official and to the in-country American security adviser he reports to, who say: 1) The victims had recently split off from a larger group of al-Qaida leaders that the sources had been tailing; 2) when the missile attack occurred, the sources had been assembling a force of some 200 Afghan fighters to attack the larger group; and 3) this larger group included Osama Bin Laden.The story also says that after the Hellfire hit, the remnants of the larger group may have bugged out to a nearby cave, just 24 hours before U.S. special ops troops showed up.

These contentions would certainly explain why the Pentagon has, pace the Washington Post, hung in there with its view that the Hellfire attack hit al-Qaida heavies, not innocent scrap metal scavengers. Besides containing many important details (such as: that the al-Qaida party traveled most of the way to Kote Tangai on a public transit bus, that local warlords and Pakistani army officers were facilitating the group’s escape into Pakistan, and that townies aware of the party’s arrival did not tell U.S. forces because they feared the information would prompt airstrikes against their village), the UPI story also illustrates how the pursuit of OBL has tangled the relationship between the press and the government.

Buried in the story (in the 37th paragraph of a 39-paragraph story) is the detail that when the local operative needed a camera to do further reconnaissance before attacking the suspected al-Qaida group, it was not the CIA or the Pentagon that gave it to him—it was UPI. I asked Tobin Beck, the executive editor of UPI, if that degree of cooperation with a military strike gave him pause, and he said UPI’s view is that disclosing its involvement in the story is all that’s required.

I don’t think there is anything inherently wrong with the media’s helping the government. Reporters and editors are citizens too, and sometimes the responsibilities of citizenship trump those of guild membership. And it might be argued that this case is exactly like the Wall Street Journal’s recent decision to let the Pentagon have a look at the hard drive of the al-Qaida computer it acquired. But perhaps it is a little different, because the computer wasn’t being perused for the direct planning of a U.S.-controlled military operation. Does this matter? I don’t know. Is there a general policy that journalists can cobble that would cover all such contingencies? I doubt it. The best a media operation can do, I think, is be very aware of the issues raised and try to address them conscientiously case-by-case. One issue will always be whether or not the decision to cooperate should always be disclosed to readers as soon as it’s made. I’d say it depends on the particulars—sometimes secrecy will be paramount to the government action in question. Another factor always worth noting is that one journalist’s willingness to cooperate with the government’s war against Middle Eastern terror makes it harder for other reporters covering that war to convince their sources that they aren’t government assets, and perhaps also makes it more likely that Danny Pearl won’t be the last reporter kidnapped.

By the way, it’s not just pure public-spiritedness that could push a news organization into helping the government this way. After all, if the pictures had materially helped capture Bin Laden, UPI would have had a pretty good claim on at least a piece of that $25 million on his head. (Beck laughed when I asked if UPI had thought about the reward, and then said it hadn’t come up, but “that’s a good question.”) Here again, I see nothing automatically wrong. The key question is not, “Does the media company profit from assisting the government?” but “Would the company provide the assistance if there were no profit in it?” If the answer to the latter is no, then the company should probably pass, because then what they’re doing isn’t primarily journalism or citizenship.