21 January 2002
Source: http://www.nytimes.com/2002/01/21/business/media/21MEDI.html

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The New York Times

21 January 2002

Why Reporters' Discovery Was Shared With Officials


Alan Cullison's laptop computer was severely damaged when the Northern Alliance truck he was riding was upended on a treacherous road on the way to Kabul, the Afghan capital. When he finally reached Kabul, he went looking for spare parts so that he could continue to file reports to The Wall Street Journal.

As John Bussey, The Journal's foreign editor, tells it: "Alan goes to this shop. Since it's Kabul, the guy's selling a lot of things. The guy says, I know someone who's got a computer, you can talk to him.

"It soon becomes evident that the computer was taken from an abandoned home, the home of someone involved with Al Qaeda."

The seller wants $4,000 or more for the hard drive and another laptop from the home. Mr. Cullison calls Mr. Bussey, who tells Mr. Cullison he needs to get the price down.

So for $1,100, payable in dollars, The Wall Street Journal came into possession of two artifacts of potentially immense journalistic, legal and intelligence value. The newspaper has since shared its find both with its readers and the Defense Department.

According to Rear Adm. Craig R. Quigley, senior spokesman for the United States Central Command in Tampa, Fla., which is running the military campaign in Afghanistan, the contents of the hard drive were downloaded in Kabul by government personnel. The laptop was turned over, he said, when its files proved impossible to download.

Before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 and the war in Afghanistan, delivering the product of journalistic luck and hard work to the government would have been problematic, at best. Journalistic sources and methods have usually been jealously guarded.

But in the context of the terrorist attacks, the decision was relatively easy, said Paul E. Steiger, The Journal's managing editor. "We decided that this was the right thing to do in moral terms and reporting terms," he said. "In moral terms, we would have been devastated if we had withheld information that could have saved the lives of our servicemen or of civilians. In reporting terms, we wanted to verify what we had."

What they had was at least 1,750 files — reports, letters, audio and video files — detailing everything from housekeeping and internal squabbles to a target-scouting mission of an Al Qaeda agent whose reported movements mirror those of Richard C. Reid. On Friday, Mr. Reid pleaded not guilty to federal charges that he tried to kill 197 passengers and crew members aboard American Airlines Flight 63 on Dec. 22 by igniting explosives in his shoe.

Last Wednesday, The Journal carried a long article by Mr. Cullison and Andrew Higgins detailing the similarities between Mr. Reid's movements over several months last year and those of a scout mentioned in their Al Qaeda computer file, who is referred to as "Abdul Ra'uff."

Other files in the computer had been detailed in a Journal article on Dec. 31. To retrieve additional files, Mr. Bussey said, the newspaper used the services of Arabic speakers to translate the files and of computer experts to bypass various password and encryption barriers. That process, he added, is still going on, and it is likely that it will produce more articles.

Meanwhile, government agencies are working on their copies of the same files. The laptop, Admiral Quigley said, was returned to The Journal at the turn of the year. He added that the information "has been widely shared within the government. There are many agencies that have a very real role to play here. We have been very enthusiastic about sharing it with all of them that can contribute to this effort."

Asked about the propriety of sharing the computer files with the military, both Bill Kovach, chairman of the Committee of Concerned Journalists in Washington, and Jane E. Kirtley, the Silha Professor of Media Ethics and Law at the University of Minnesota, endorsed The Journal's action.

Mr. Kovach said: "There are times when the journalist as citizen comes to the fore. I can think of a couple of examples. One, when The New York Times and The Washington Post decided to cooperate with the government in printing the Unabomber's statement. And a journalist who might witness a murder has an obligation as a citizen."

For Professor Kirtley, "This is not the classic journalistic dilemma of having information that you obtain through a confidential source. This is a lucky find. To me, it does not raise the same ethical concern that it would if it had been passed by a confidential source."

Even before Mr. Cullison happened on Al Qaeda's computer, the rush of journalists to retrieve Al Qaeda and Taliban material from houses deserted in the headlong retreat late last year had prompted various news organizations to formulate policies about what they would and would not take from homes and offices, and what they would or would not share with the government.

The Journal's policy, Mr. Bussey said, was that "if something is abandoned and it comes into our possession and we determine that lives could be at stake, we will hand it over to the authorities."

Asked if there had been dissent from Mr. Cullison or Mr. Higgins, the reporters, he said: "There was discussion with the reporters about this. No reporter would want to be in a position of freely handing things over to the government. This was a national security issue, a major issue, an are-lives-at-stake issue."