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Secret Finger-Pointing over Danny Pearl's Death

Did the Wall Street Journal endanger a reporter by handing over an al Qaeda laptop to the U.S. government? And how is President Bush profiting from the whole affair?
 
 
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What did the Wall Street Journal know about Daniel Pearl, and when did it know it?

For weeks during the ordeal of Pearl's captivity -- and the uncertainty about whether he was dead or alive -- Wall Street Journal senior editors privately debated amongst themselves whether they somehow had put Pearl in harm's way. And not in any general, existential sense, but whether the paper's controversial decision to hand over an al Qaeda laptop computer to the Department of Defense and the CIA late last year had blown back on them.

Journal editors have never made public their doubts about their handling of the laptop affair, which was lost in the avalanche of concern and publicity over Pearl's abduction. Instead, Journal editors have publicly avoided connecting the fate of Pearl with their handling of the laptop. Yet there remains within the Journal a concern that sharing a source of data with the U.S. government contributed to the dangers Pearl faced.

To be sure, the Islamic militants who seized and murdered Pearl may have chosen him at random. They may never have read the Wall Street Journal or known anything about the paper's stance towards assisting the government in a time of war. But Journal editors worried about this possibility, though they avoided raising it in their public pleas for Pearl's release.

The Journal's worries stemmed from a chance purchase of a laptop computer by Alan Cullison, a foreign correspondent for the paper. Cullison, who ordinarily works out of the Moscow bureau, purchased a laptop in Kabul from a computer dealer late last year when his own laptop broke. The laptop turned out to contain many al Qaeda files on its hard-drive -- files describing plans and movements of terrorists.

Cullison's instincts -- and that of his boss, Andrew Higgins, the Journal's Moscow bureau chief -- was to run with what seemed like a tremendous exclusive. But they were overruled by Paul Steiger, the paper's managing editor, who decided that the government should be privy to the information some weeks prior to the Journal's readers. At Steiger's insistence -- and over the objections of Higgins, a Pulitzer Prize winner -- the Journal turned the laptop over to the Department of Defense and the CIA, ostensibly to receive help in interpreting the information. But they also did it -- as the Journal's foreign editor pointedly declared to the New York Times two days before Pearl's abduction -- to assist in the war on terrorism.

U.S. officials later confirmed that they widely distributed the contents of the laptop files to numerous government agencies. But when the Journal published its own stories -- two front page articles -- it failed to tell readers that it first shared the contents of the laptop with the government. Only when the New York Times prepared an article on this departure from standard practice did the Journal come clean. Steiger defended sharing the laptop in an interview with the New York Times. "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," he said.

What about Danny Pearl's life? Could the laptop affair have contributed to his death? Could al Qaeda have sought revenge on the Journal for becoming -- at least in this instance -- an informal arm of the government?

Andrew Higgins, who co-wrote the laptop stories with Cullison, dismisses the possibility that al Qaeda targeted the Journal for revenge. He also says that no Journal editor ever raised the possibility that Cullison was in danger if he stayed in Afghanistan after the publication of the first article, which appeared on Dec. 31. Higgins says the Journal neither asked Cullison to leave Afghanistan for his own safety nor did Cullison fear for his safety.

That's curious. Maybe he should have. One Journal correspondent, who has worked in war zones and Islamic countries, says he routinely asked the Journal to withhold stories for publication until after he left that country. In short, being out of a country when articles broke was a security precaution.

Why didn't Cullison feel this way? Higgins says the question never came up. He says that "only after Danny was kidnapped was there any talk of reviewing Kabul staffing" -- meaning, pulling reporters out of Afghanistan.

Until Danny Pearl was seized, no one thought of pulling reporters out of Pakistan, either. Pearl himself had only recently arrived there; his original post was in India, where he had been getting his feet wet covering South Asia for less than a year. But after Sept. 11, internal competition within the paper drew Pearl to Pakistan.

Peter Waldman, a veteran Journal foreign correspondent, understands why. Unlike most major news organizations, Waldman notes, the Wall Street Journal tends to ignore its reporters' geographic assignments -- if a hot story breaks out, many Journal correspondents may converge on one place. "Suddenly, 12 people were covering his area," Waldman says.

Pearl felt he had to compete with his colleagues to maintain his standing at the Journal. Ironically, he had refused to venture into Afghanistan, choosing instead what seemed like the safer task of trolling Pakistan for stories. Concerned about his safety, Pearl actually met with officials at the U.S. embassy, but received no special assistance from the Journal, where no editor had yet wondered about the possibility of blowback from the laptop affair. Not even when the New York Times reported a statement from the Journal's foreign editor, John Bussey, outlining the paper's new "policy" of sharing information with the Department of Defense, did the paper's editors worry that its foreign reporters might face greater risks.

Why were Journal editors so reticent to talk about how Pearl got entangled in his deadly encounter? One reason is that the paper's "standard support" for foreign correspondents might strike non-journalists as strange. Reporters do whatever they deem necessary. Full stop. There are no rules covering physical risks. Waldman recalled that he often met Islamic fundamentalists without backup and without any editors knowing where he was or why. Of the six years he lived abroad, Waldman said, "I never phoned in once" to alert editors he might face danger.

As has been reported elsewhere, Pearl campaigned for many months to convince foreign editor Bussey that the Journal needed safety regulations to help protect its foreign reporters. The Journal has said it had safety measures in place, but in my own years as a foreign correspondent I never saw them. I dare say Pearl never did either. Proof? How else, at the risk of being impertinent, can anyone explain how Pearl managed to bring his pregnant wife to Karachi, the hostage-taking capital of South Asia? Was she allowed under the Journal's "security rules?" A more charitable explanation is to concede that there were no rules.

The Journal's unease over disclosing what it has done to secure its foreign correspondents, thus, may stem from the sorry truth: the paper did little or nothing. Indeed, Waldman last week read excerpts from a fresh memo in which Bussey said foreign correspondents could enhance their safety by using regular drivers. Sure.

Of course, reporters in hostile countries must take risks and no amount of preparation or caution can reduce those risks to zero. But the Journal has an obligation to help its reporters manage those risks. Not because the Journal is an institution that serves the public good. Or even because the Journal is an excellent employer, which it is. But because the murder of a reporter could cause a war -- or justify one.

As Pearl's death has shown, the fate of a foreign correspondent is also the U.S. government's concern. While President Bush disregards the needs of living journalists -- to cover the war close up, to find out about Dick Cheney's activities, to learn how decisions on expanding the war are made -- he is far more solicitous of dead journalists. On confirmation of Pearl's death, Bush declared, "God bless Danny Pearl." He ordered a change in government policy on kidnapped Americans, essentially saying that in future the government would feel compelled to rescue abducted journalists. He offered a huge reward for information leading to the capture of Pearl's killers and called for their extradition to the United States, even though there is no legal basis for Pearl's killers to be tried and sentenced by U.S. courts.

The editors of Wall Street Journal never asked Bush to do all this on their behalf, I am sure. The newspaper, which has the largest circulation of any in the U.S., must objectively cover the Bush Administration; to ask Bush for the favorable treatment outlined above would create a perception that the paper owes the Bush administration something when it does not.

So let's assume there is no deal. Let's assume that Bush has hijacked the death of Danny Pearl for his own purposes. Still, the editors of the Wall Street Journal may get something as a result of the President's intervention. Because in the streets of Islamic countries, Bush's insistence on settling the score on behalf of Danny Pearl -- rather than letting Pakistani courts do what they are capable of doing -- will be perceived as preferential treatment for American journalists. And that adds to the risks incurred by foreign correspondents.

The President may have blundered into this morass -- or he may be smarter than he seems. Perhaps he does like his reporters better dead than alive.

G. Pascal Zachary is the author of "The Global Me," on globalization and multiculturalism. He was on staff of the Wall Street Journal for 12 years.