Michael's Dispatches

Hostages

26 Comments

Michael Yon
16 November 2009

When New York Times journalist David Rohde was kidnapped last year in Afghanistan, the company engaged in a painstaking effort to squash the story. They succeeded in persuading major media who learned of the kidnapping to keep quiet. The cover-up was so good that a New York Times reporter I spoke with in December 2008, while she and I joined Secretary Gates on a trip through Afghanistan, Bahrain, Iraq and back to the United States, had not heard about the David Rohde kidnapping.

The New York Times openly agrees that publishing such articles increases the peril to the lives of hostages, yet it published details about a British couple being held hostage in Somalia, and thus increased the value of the hostages to the kidnappers.

Some months after Mr. Rohde’s kidnapping started leaking, I published a generic blurb about the case, but made sure none of the information was new.

I knew more than was included in the vignette, but chose not to release it. I did not share what sources had told me: that Taliban members were being paid large sums of money (and that money was being wasted) and that some of the efforts flowed through Dubai. I have not published any other additional information from sources. Shortly after publication, March 13, 2009, I received an e-mail that included this request from a person close to Rohde:

“The NYT has asked for a news blackout while they do what they can for David Rohde's release. All the wires and the big papers are following it. Therefore, while I'm sure you don't mean any harm, I'm not sure your post about him is helpful.”

The person who e-mailed was not from the New York Times.  I removed the blub I had posted to my site. Though no new information was released, I had offered the kidnappers more coverage.

Sources continued sending reports about attempts to repatriate Rohde. I had not sought out this information. It had fallen as it usually does, like rain.

After Rohde returned to the United States and details became public, the Washington Post and others contacted me about my decisions to publish and then remove the vignette. My thoughts were that if the words risked the life of Mr. Rohde, they should not be publicized.

While reading the New York Times’ article about the British couple, I became upset, and wondered why they would implement a black-out for one hostage, but not another.

I shifted my Blackberry over to Twitter and punched out some blurbs, one of which said the following:

“Numerous very well placed sources have told me New York Times/associates paid millions to get Rohde release.”

And:

“NYT is endangering the hostages in Somalia.”

It is important to know that while tweeting those words, I was sitting on an airplane, on a research trip, for an article for the New York Times. An editor had asked for something about Afghanistan, and I chose the topic of biogas, which included trips to Cambodia, Laos, Nepal (twice), Vietnam (this week), and Afghanistan.

The New York Times is one of the best sources on Iraq and Afghanistan. Their war correspondents are the “A-Team” and that included David Rohde. I was happy to write a piece for the New York Times.

The flurry of follow-on stories that picked up on my tweets, such as those by the Huffington Post, focused on ransom for Mr. Rohde, rather than the point about the harm the New York Times’ detailed coverage could cause the hostages.

On November 2, the New York Times posted a public response:

“Several Web sites repeated Monday erroneous allegations that The New York Times had paid a ransom in the case of its reporter David Rohde, held by the Taliban for seven months.”

The New York Times didn’t mention me by name, but the story continued spreading, with people reporting that I accused the New York Times of lying. Nowhere in the “tweets” was ransom mentioned, or anything about lying. I have no evidence that the New York Times misled the public, nor did I say or imply such. The tweet about money was based on what I had been told by reliable sources. Again, this is the tweet:

“Numerous very well placed sources have told me New York Times/associates paid millions to get Rohde release.”

The New York Times rebuttal statement goes on to quote David Rohde:

“American government officials worked to free us, but they maintained their longstanding policy of not negotiating with kidnappers. They paid no ransom and exchanged no prisoners. Pakistani and Afghan officials said they also freed no prisoners and provided no money.

“Security consultants who worked on our case said cash was paid to Taliban members who said they knew our whereabouts. But the consultants said they were never able to identify or establish contact with the guards who were living with us.”

Though it didn’t address the exact amount of money, the New York Times confirmed my tweet about money by acknowledging that “cash was paid to Taliban members.” My sources have said that large sums of money went through Dubai to Pakistan, not to mention the costs paid to consultants and other expenses.

Though my statements were in line with the New York Times’ statements, other outlets continued to state that I was accusing the New York Times of “lying.”  Not the case.

Chris Rovzar, who blogs at New York Magazine, was off mark when he ran this headline: Freelance War Reporter Accuses Times of Lying about Taliban Bribes.

My words said nothing about lying or bribes, and I am not a “freelance” or a “reporter,” though some of the work involves reporting. I contacted Mr. Rovzar and was pleasantly rewarded by his goodwill, candor and willingness to reexamine the words.

Moving on, the New York Times picked up on points about its coverage of the Somalia story when it published:

“Bloggers also accused The Times of hypocrisy in reporting on a British couple kidnapped by Somali pirates while keeping quiet Mr. Rohde’s kidnapping. . .

“The New York Times did not break the story of the kidnapping of Paul and Rachel Chandler, and during our reporting of it The Times consulted Christine Collett, Ms. Chandler’s sister-in-law, to ask her if the family objected to the publication of any information regarding the case. Ms. Collett, who was quoted in the story, said the family had no objection to The Times reporting on the case.”

Reporting with permission from a sister-in-law hardly makes it right. How many everyday people have experiences dealing with kidnappers? In fact, the Rohde case was the first time I realized how sensitive negotiators are to even passing acknowledgment.  How many of us know that even acknowledgment of the kidnapping can lead to harm?  Most people are unaware, but the New York Times knows. Did the New York Times share advice on its recent experiences when it asked Ms. Collett’s permission?

This incident aside, my respect for the New York Times’ reporting from Iraq and Afghanistan is undiminished. It offers world-class coverage, and continues to be on the reading list.

The New York Times and I simply have a difference of opinion on the hostage topic.

I believe that they have been truthful, while understandably guarded on the abduction of David Rohde. It would be wrong to bash a paper that has fielded such an outstanding team in Iraq and Afghanistan. The hostage issue is just one important issue, and all points by all parties seem to have been made and noted.

Finally, it’s time to move on from this distraction to a much larger topic: Afghanistan. Bad signals are coming from the White House.

 

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  • This commment is unpublished.
    Henry Bowman · 9 years ago
    I wonder what you would recommend that the U.S. do in Afghanistan. What would be so horrible about simply withdrawing most personnel, declaring War on the Taliban, then mercilessly killing as many Taliban as possible using air power, Special Forces, and locals? Even Marcus Luttrell, in his book Lone Survivor, seemed to think that the U.S. would make much headway in a straight-up military option.

    I'm sure that the U.S. could win a war in Afghanistan if we would follow Curtis Lemay's advice and simply bomb 'em back to the Stone Age (though some might argue than many in Afghanistan don't have far to go to get to the Stone Age). However, many thousands of basically uninvolved civilians would die in such a campaign. I cannot see a national government ever surviving for long in Afghanistan without the heavy presence of an outside party (i.e., the U.S.). Why should we bother?
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Henry Bowman · 9 years ago
    Correction: in my initial comment, I should have written "Marcus Luttrell, in his book Lone Survivor, seemed to think that the U.S. would not make much headway ..."
  • This commment is unpublished.
    hank scheib · 9 years ago
    NYT had no hesitation in divulging intelligence details in war time even though it compromised our national security. Or ah I forgot...that was under a Republican adminiistration and as far as the Times was concerned the adminiistration was the enemy, so anything they could do to undermine the administration's afforts was fair game --- never mind the harm to the country. What bleeping hypocrites.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    ChrisB · 9 years ago
    Kind of interesting how a few words can get misinterpreted and used to make trouble with people you need to work with. Imagine if the intemediaries were hostile to you and meant to do you real harm. *sigh* This is how truth gets lost.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    S.T. Gilbert · 9 years ago
    The NY Times has never seemed to have a problem not only reporting the kidnapping of this British couple, but also of US citizens in Afghanistan. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/30/world/asia/30afghan.html?_r=1

    When I heard of Mr. Rohde's release and how the Times had worked so hard to keep his kidnapping a secret and how the rest of the press fell in line, I saw the hypocrisy immediately and thought of the scores of other foreigners that have not had the same benefit that Mr. Rohde's received from his employer.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    C. J. Waters · 9 years ago
    Mr. Yon, I have to wonder about how much your comments on the NYT were colored by the fact that you are working on a major project for them. I understand that they published the same article on their front page 47 times about Abu Graib. I admit they made slight changes each time, but those articles I read were substantially identical. They have published a number of stories that harmed this nation, simply because they believed that those stories would embarrass the Bush administration. They are so politically biased against the United States that they are losing readers constantly. Unless President Obama rewards their loyalty with a government bailout they will soon go bankrupt.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Valerie · 9 years ago
    Who gives a fig about what the NYT says. They are blatently biased to the point of obvious contempt for individuals/groups who disagree with their thoughts and/or agenda. One only has to notice the financial state of most national newspapers to see the NYT is not alone. I read you, Michael, because you do not twist facts to reflect your personal opinions. Major newspapers are good for grocery ads and a few sports results. All found on the the net. Only one in the mainstream media do I trust to present accurate facts and balanced views. Fox...yes, Fox still rocks and you would be quite an attraction should you decide to grace their network shows.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Jim · 9 years ago
    How disgusting can one organization be? The rag is a POS but somehow it still makes headlines. Hopefully when it goes BK it will not be missed.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Nellie · 9 years ago
    Pardon my cynicism, but is not the NYT in the same business as other papers? ie: selling newspapers. I'm not surprised that they had no compunction in publishing the kidnapping of the Chandlers - it's newsworthy, in that it is outside the normal 'Somali pirates take tanker' line of news from that part of the world. Do Americans use the same nickname for reporters that is often used in UK? (reptiles)
    Rant over......
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Lorenz Gude · 9 years ago
    I think both Mr Yon and Mister Walters are right. The NY Times does excellent reporting and has some of the best reporters in the field and at the same time they have a political agenda that seems to me well characterized by Mr. Walters. John Burns reported for the Times from Baghdad through most of the war and like Michael, did excellent work that was often put under headlines that were politically motivated by the editors back home. The Times also publishes essential documents that do not conform to to their political agenda. For example, The Times publishednO'Hanlon and Pollack's A War We Might Just Win in Jul 2007 when the surge was beginning to take effect and that foreshadowed its success. Hillary would have had less need to suspend disbelief of general Petraeus if she had taken it in. The truth is they have some of the best - even essential reporting - available and at the same time twist and spin - and most of all leave out essential information - so that they create a highly refined echo chamber. That echo chamber is sometimes known as the Eastern Intellectual Establishment (I consider myself a 'recovering' member) My bottom line - never trust the NY Times to give a balanced picture even though it starts, as Michael says, with top reporting. That is why we are fortunate to have independent journalists (or however he defines himself) like Michael.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    willis · 9 years ago
    I'll believe in the integrity of the NYT when it renounces and apologizes for the work of their reporter, Walter Duranty.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Alaska Paul · 9 years ago
    Individual reporters for the NYT may be doing great work, but the management of the NYT has been pushing the politics of defeat for years. They do not care about the implications to people of what they do when they publish secret or sensitive information, except for when one of their own, in this case Mr. Rhodes, gets his a$$ in a crack.


    As far as Afghanistan is concerned, IMVHO, we have been mucking about in that country for 7 years too long. One of the things that really gripes me about this and past administrations is that they do not come out and state their main goals about the WoT. It seems to me that we went into Afghanistan to deny our mortal enemies a base for training and for launching operations against us. What we needed to do is to use our assets in whatever appropriate way to achieve this strategic goal. We also needed to look into where the disease came from and that is Pakistan, and its tribal areas. And we also need to look at where Pakistan gets its money, and that may point back to certain Saudis. After all, The Saudis originally supported the Taliban. So we have President Bush holding hands with the Saudi king, and President Obama bowing to the Saudi King. This country's leadership is not serious about winning the war, so we pi$$ away treasure and troops. Nobody in past and present administrations ever bothers to take the time to read Sun Tzu's Art of War.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    J.C. Gorman · 9 years ago
    The NYT is somewhat like the government. The front line reporters do a great job but the editors back home undermine them to bend the news to fit their political agenda. The politicos, opportunistic business vultures and others in this country who use the bodies of American servicemen to advance their agenda and undermine any effort to defeat the terrorists are the same lowlifes that have been with us throughout history. Greece had them, Rome had them and like vermin they will always be with us. They are usually highly educated, characterless, schemers who's only interest is the gathering of power for themselves. Thankfully there are more decent people then not. It is just that the ones questing for power are working at it 24/7 while the rest of us are trying to make a living.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    David M · 9 years ago
    The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 11/16/2009 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

    http://www.thunderrun.us/2009/11/from-front-11162009.html
  • This commment is unpublished.
    D. Kraft · 9 years ago
    Micheal,

    Horrible signals from this administration is more like it. My instincts tell me those in the White House want to extricate themselves from Iraq and Afghanistan asap so they can focus time and spending on their domestic policy initiatives. It's what the left side of the aisle know best.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    G. Sherburne · 9 years ago
    Sorry Michael. The NYT provides world class coverage from time to time, so a blanket statement doesn't fit the reality. I have found many biases in their war coverage, and my son, who served in Iraq, was distraught at the stories he read in the NYT written by reporters he risked his life to escort around, apparently so they could look for some sensational dirt to fit the NYT "narrative" of the Iraq war. He witnessed the same things and heard the same conversations they did, and the reality was nothing like their story. I guess it is possible that they reported truthfully and their editors skewed it, but it is the reporting plus the editing that equals the coverage. While they have done good work from time to time, their average isn't too good.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    kiwi chris · 9 years ago
    http://blog.stevenpressfield.com/category/one-tribe-at-a-time/
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    Dave Green · 9 years ago
    This story of suppressing news in order to save lives makes me hope that the New York Times regains its sole. Terrorists win when their acts create media coverage, especially of the sympathetic variety. Worse, publications like the Times are so often cowed by the Jihadists that they won't use words like "Islamic" and they preface every broken down village in the Middle East with the phrase "the holy city of," something I have never seen them do with regard to Rome or Jerusalem. These so-called news organizations revere Mohammad in ways they would never revere Jesus or Moses. Where are the courageous stories about the violence, resentment, and mindless subservience fostered by mainstream Islam?
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Bill · 9 years ago
    Michael, you knew exactly what you were doing when you tweeted that the NYTimes "paid millions" for the release of the hostage. The distinct impression you wanted to leave was that the NYTimes paid a RANSOM to release Rhodes. And now you've been called on it. To top things off, you don't have enough integrity to apologize, you've just dug the hole deeper. Pathetic.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    R. James 2/11th ACR · 9 years ago
    I think Michael did know what he was doing, because he picked his words carefully not to say they paid a Ransom.

    But as we all know if I give you a million dollars for your fishing boat and you give me your house, wife and business do you really think I want to go fishing?

    They paid one way or another..... But that is not the point of the tweet or article...NYT is two faced....they do for their own and sell newspapers when others are kidnapped, talk about integrity PLEASE!!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Bill · 9 years ago
    Unfortunately, this is a pattern with Michael. Just like his "baked boy served to Iraqi parents" tale, he throws incendiary charges out there without verifying. If he wanted to nail the NYTimes, he should have written a detailed story that relied on his sources, backed up with facts, and at the very least called Rohdes and the Times to get their side. He did none of this. Instead he tweeted -- in anger, as he admitted -- an anonymously sourced one-liner that turned out to be wildly misleading. How is what he did right?
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Julie Harris · 9 years ago
    I cancelled my subscription to the NYT a few years back and have no regrets. Nowadays you have to be picky to get real unbiased news. I am proud to be a Yon follower and have learned to read between his lines. I have always known him to be a writer who honorably takes his subjects safety into account and always provides the truth as he personally sees it. Keep it up Michael!!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Daniel · 9 years ago
    Hey R James.
    What is eating you?
    Michael made a truthful statement that he heard from reliable sources that money had been paid to secure R's release.
    The NY Times publicly admitted that it had done so, verifying the accuracy of those sources.
    Do you believe that the Times would have admitted this if Michael had not made his claim?
    The Times says that it did not pay ransom and it did not pay anything to the actual jailors. Let us believe these claims.
    Then how did the release take place?
    Someone got money; someone ordered the jailors to release the prisoner. That person had sufficient authority or influence on the jailors to have that order obeyed.
    Do you suppose that person, the one who ordered the release, got some of the millions paid? But of course no ransom was paid.
    Wanna buy a bridge?
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Jett · 9 years ago
    No POTUS has had the cajones to fight a war since Nixon and his were cut off by congress and domestic traitors. Even snake eaters can't operate with no communications, no back up and no supply lines. Anyone who's read MY's dispatches from Afghanistan knows that all those logistical necessaries are so fragile there, a few coalition snake eaters can't possibly operate for long or get very far under current conditions. Remove more infrastructure and even the current limited possibilities become impossible. Obaminable has lost Afghanistan, by delaying a sufficient deployment to secure bases of operation that could launch and support effective counter-insurgency. Shrub was losing Afghanistan by failing to force strong, secular, constitutional change in the civil structure of the country. Both are essential.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    R. James 2/11th ACR · 9 years ago
    Uh Daniel you are talking to the wrong guy, you should be talking to Bill
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Matt · 8 years ago
    That is all.

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