CNN is defending itself against accusations from the U.S. State Department that it trampled on the wishes of the family of the slain U.S. ambassador to Libya in reporting on his fears of a terrorist attack before his death.
The criticism stemmed from CNN's discovery and use of the late Chris Stevens' personal journal to pursue its reporting about his concerns over security in Benghazi, Libya. A top State Department official, Philippe Reines, called CNN's actions "indefensible" and "disgusting," saying the network had broken its promises to the dead ambassador's family.
But Mark Whitaker, CNN Worldwide managing editor and executive vice president, said the network carefully balanced empathy for the family with the public's right to know about a terrible crime committed against an American official.
'Public Had The Right To Know'
"We thought we had an obligation to pursue the specific ... concerns that Stevens had about his safety and about terror threats," Whitaker told NPR, in his first outside interview on the subject.
"That was relevant to how he died, who killed him, and the whole discussion that was very live at that point," Whitaker said. "Was he the victim of random violence — protesters who were looting in the area? Or was this a deliberate terror plot by al-Qaida or other terrorist elements?"
That further raises questions of what the U.S. government knew; the soundness of its intelligence; and whether Stevens had asked for or been offered additional security.
"All of these are issues of vital national and international interests, which we thought the public had a right to know," Whitaker said.
The deadly incident occurred Sept. 11. Stevens was among four Americans killed as an unruly mob sacked the consulate in Benghazi and attacked U.S. citizens. Officials initially blamed the deaths on the outrage stirred by Muslim extremists against a video that insulted the Prophet Muhammad.
Several days later, CNN reporter Arwa Damon came across Stevens' personal journal on the grounds of the local house rented for use as the mission. In it, Stevens confided his fears about security threats in Benghazi and being targeted by al-Qaida.
According to Whitaker, CNN responded on two tracks. First, reporters in Libya and the U.S. sought to verify and pursue leads contained in Stevens' notes. Richard Griffiths, one of the network's top standards officials, spoke to Stevens' brother Thomas on a conference call with the State Department's Reines. Second, by Whitaker's account, the network also wanted to tell the Stevens family of the discovery, learn its wishes and return the journal. (Messages left by NPR for Stevens' siblings seeking comment for this story were not returned.)
Last Wednesday, CNN's Anderson Cooper relied upon material obtained from the private journal to report Stevens had "talked about being worried about what he called the never-ending security threats, specifically in Benghazi." Cooper cited "a source familiar with Ambassador Stevens' thinking" and did not disclose that Stevens' personal journal was used as a source of information.
On Friday, as word of the journal leaked out to other news outlets, Cooper revealed its existence on the air. He also said the information in the CNN broadcast was confirmed with another associate of the ambassador's prior to his report.
State Department Anger
Reines went ballistic. "Given the truth of how this was handled, CNN patting themselves on the back is disgusting," Reines, a longtime confidant to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, wrote in a statement to the press. He also accused CNN of promising the family not to report anything from the journal unless it had explicit permission.
"Whose first instinct is to remove from a crime scene the diary of a man killed along with three other Americans serving our country, read it, transcribe it, email it around your newsroom for others to read, and only when their curiosity is fully satisfied thinks to call the family or notify the authorities?" Reines wrote.
The network in response initially contended Reines was blaming the messenger for reporting on questions about what went awry.
Whitaker also disputed just about every element of Reines' account.
First, he said the consulate was not a crime scene in the way in which Americans would characterize it.
"By that point, it had largely been evacuated, at least by U.S. personnel, and a number of reporters were going around," Whitaker said Tuesday. "The idea that it was a crime scene in the sense that U.S. officials or investigators had sealed it off — in fact, there were no such officials there anymore."
Second, he said the network conferred initially to determine whether it appeared to be a public document or a private diary. Once deciding it was Stevens' private jottings, Whitaker said, CNN moved to inform the family of its possession of the journal, and after replicating its contents, to return it. CNN gave the notebook to an Italian diplomat, as the State Department suggested, to convey it back home. (The New York Times reported Tuesday that Reines said continuing violence in Libya had prevented the diplomat from getting to the capital, Tripoli, where he could transport the journal out of the country.)
Profanity-Laced Email Exchange
The conversation may have been more ambiguous than either side allows.
But Whitaker said CNN did not make explicit promises that it would not use the material without the family's blessing.
"It was clear that the family didn't want us to report on the existence of the journal, and the family was also sensitive about the idea of reporting on personal information," Whitaker said. "And so, going forward, we thought we had an obligation — not because necessarily we had made an explicit promise, but just out of decency — to try to not do those two things."
Reines declined NPR's query to be interviewed on the record for this story. But he told the BBC on Sunday that he did not blame a reporter who stumbled across the journal for thumbing through it.
"I think at that point there would have been a very thoughtful conversation internally to talk about ... whether the news in it was so compelling and important that it had to be used," Reines told the BBC.
In an email exchange that became public, Reines also viciously and profanely denigrated a reporter for BuzzFeed who raised questions in defense of CNN.
An Existing Tension
Former State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said both the State Department and CNN were reacting to their institutional imperatives.
"For the State Department, we've lost our first sitting ambassador in more than 30 years, and there's a natural human reaction to this," Crowley said Tuesday. "They want to take care of their own — in this particular case, the Stevens family."
He said the lack of security at the consulate in the days after the attack meant that any investigation was very likely compromised. The State Department is still investigating whether the security arrangements for the mission were adequate.
But Crowley, who served under Secretary Clinton prior to his resignation in March 2011, did not condemn CNN for its actions.
"From a media standpoint, obviously they came into possession of information that is directly linked to a very significant story — and they reported it," Crowley said. "This kind of tension exists all the time.
"Government is always wary of journalists who are reporting things that are sensitive. But that's the nature of this relationship."