Reporter Stephen Farrell Rescued In Afghanistan

The Taliban captured the New York Times' Stephen Farrell and translator Sultan Munadi. A raid freed Farrell. Munadi, a British commando and an Afghan woman were killed. Bill Keller, the Times' executive editor, discusses his decision to suppress news of the capture.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

On Saturday, Stephen Farrell, a foreign correspondent for the New York Times and his translator, Sultan Munadi, were captured by the Taliban in Northern Afghanistan. Their driver, who managed to escape, told his colleagues and editors what happened. They kept quiet. They asked other news organizations not to report the story for concern for the safety of the two journalists.

Earlier today, a British commando raid freed Stephen Farrell, but Sultan Munadi was killed along with one British commando and at least one Afghan civilian.

In just a moment, Bill Keller, the executive editor of the New York Times joins us. If you'd like to talk to him about what happened to Stephen Farrell or about the decision to suppress news of his capture, the phone number is 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And Bill Keller joins us now from his office in New York. And it's very good of you to be with us today.

Mr. BILL KELLER (Executive Editor, New York Times): Hi, Neal.

CONAN: And I know you have to have mixed feelings about what happened earlier today.

Mr. KELLER: Yeah. It's, you know, a combination of relief and real anguish. I mean, I'm, of course, thrilled that Steve is free, but Sultan was much beloved in the Kabul bureau by a lot of correspondents who've worked with him over the years. And, of course, you know, we're - we feel terrible about the British commando who died trying to set those guys free.

CONAN: And I wonder, did the Times know in advance that this raid was going to happen?

Mr. KELLER: No, we didn't. I'd had general conversations with the military to ask, you know, under what circumstances they might conduct a raid. But my impression, the last time I talked to them, was that they were going to give it a few days to see how things played out, you know, without any kind of military intervention.

CONAN: Give us some idea of what Steve Farrell was reporting on and what this part of Afghanistan is like. As I understand it, he's up there in the aftermath of the attack on two gasoline tankers that had been hijacked, an attack in which dozens of people were killed.

Mr. KELLER: That's right. That's why he was there. There was an allied bombing, actually, German bombers who attacked this convoy of tanker trucks that had been hijacked by the Taliban. The reports we were getting, you know, by phone and indirectly were that dozens or scores of civilians had been killed.

The NATO spokespeople said that their best information was that most of the casualties were Taliban, and Steve went out there to try and sort it out as best he could.

CONAN: And then he and his translator were overtaken?

Mr. KELLER: The three of them - translator, driver and Steve - were about, I think, 10 kilometers south of Kunduz - at the scene of this bombing, were interviewing people on the ground, and a kind of angry crowd gathered around. I think tempers have been running very high after the bombing.

And then somebody said the Taliban are coming and eight or 10 guys with guns came, you know, came on to the scene. The driver ran and got away. Steve and Sultan were captured.

CONAN: And then this morning, the - as far as I can understand reading the story was filed there for the New York Times, they suddenly awoke in their room to hear shouts and gunfire and the Taliban all left the room.

Mr. KELLER: That's right. They'd been - it would be nearly four days, three days and some, and they had been moved three or four times a day, but mostly in the general vicinity of where the bombing took place.

They were in a kind of small room inside of a compound. They heard helicopters coming in. The Taliban scattered. They stayed inside because they didn't want to be, you know, rushing out the door with a bunch of Taliban into the, you know, face of NATO commandos.

And then later they followed - made their way through a court yard, through a mud wall. They were kind of scuttling along the wall. Sultan, in front of Steve, they got to a corner and Sultan put his hands up, walked out into the open saying, journalist, journalist, and fell on a hail of bullets. Steve dove into a ditch, waited until he heard the direction that the British voices were coming from and then shouted, I'm a British hostage, and was rescued.

CONAN: People should know that he holds dual British and Irish citizenship, so…

Mr. KELLER: That's right.

CONAN: …he got working for New York Times. I have to say, do we know who fired the shots that killed Mr. Sultan?

Mr. KELLER: We don't. And I asked Steve that when I talked to him this morning. He said he couldn't say with any certainty. It was pitch-black, in a forested area. You know, when Sultan stepped away from the wall and shouted that he was a journalist, you know, Steve said he couldn't tell for sure whether he was assuring the commandos that he wasn't Taliban or whether he was assuring the Taliban that he wasn't with the commandos.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. KELLER: He just - you know, we just don't know.

CONAN: Some listeners may remember, I was taken captive by the Republican Guard at the end of the First Gulf War with, as it happens, another correspondent for the New York Times, Chris Hedges.

Mr. KELLER: Mm-hmm.

CONAN: And I can remember thinking as we were being held in a convoy that the last thing I wanted to see was Special Forces coming to save us. I would never be able to reconcile the fact of people putting their lives on the line to save me. I wonder, have you talked to Steve about what happened today and about his feelings?

Mr. KELLER: I have. I mean, his feelings are - I mean, mixed would be putting it mildly.

CONAN: Yeah.

Mr. KELLER: You know, he's second-guessing, obviously, every decision he made along the way, as you do in these…

CONAN: Sure.

Mr. KELLER: …situations, and, you know, and mourning the loss of his translator and companion. You know - and we - it's a good question about, you know, wanting the military to rescue you or not to rescue you.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. KELLER: Our general preference in these cases - and we've had more experience than I wished we'd had - has been to hope for the military to hold off, partly for the reason that you enunciated, because it's, you know, putting other lives at risk in addition to the lives of our people, but partly because, you know, war is messy. And, you know, as we learned in this case, you know, people get killed. Sometimes rescues just don't go as smoothly as you might hope.

CONAN: And we have to point out that earlier this year, David Rohde, another correspondent for the New York Times, was held for a much longer period of time, and eventually he and his translator managed to escape. Their driver did not.

Mr. KELLER: That's right.

CONAN: And…

Mr. KELLER: Their driver did - was eventually released, actually.

CONAN: But in the escape attempt - anyway. And I have to ask, in both situations, the Times asked other news organization to not to report that their correspondent was being held - NPR News honored that request. These are case-by-case decisions, I guess. But why did you make that request? Why did you think this was important to do? Why is it important for newspaper to sit on news?

Mr. KELLER: Well - I mean, it's agonizing to sit on news. You know, it's just - you know, our default position is we report stuff, and to not do it, you know, to - particularly in the case of David Rohde, when something has gone for seven months, to sit on a story that long just goes against our nature. But we've done it for other people, as well, journalists and non-journalists.

There is a - I don't know if it's a unanimous consensus, but a fairly strong consensus among the experts in this field that the kind of buzz of media publicity raises the temperature - it creates the possibility that damaging information or misinformation will be out there on the Web, that, you know, somebody will accuse your guy of being a spy, and that kind of - you know, you lose control of the situation.

In the case of David Rohde, we actually had, at the outset, instructions from the kidnappers not to talk about it publicly. And so we - our immediate concern there was that we would be putting him at risk if we, you know, flagrantly disregarded what the kidnappers had asked for.

In this case, we had some early word through intermediaries that this might be resolvable, and we wanted to just keep it as quiet and calm as we could in the hopes that we could persuade the captors that these guys were legitimate journalists doing important work and that they should be released.

CONAN: Let's get a caller in on the conversation. Andrew's calling us from Flemington, New Jersey.

ANDREW (Caller): Yeah, hi. How are you doing?

CONAN: Very well, thanks.

ANDREW: Good. Yeah, I was wondering - I have a quick question, comment about, you know, how were you able to keep all the news outlets from, you know, to get up on this story? You know, it's pretty hard to keep anything under wraps these days. And also just to comment real quick on the situation, you know, (unintelligible) you see the loss of the - his translator, was it? Who got - who was…

Mr. KELLER: Yes.

ANDREW: Yeah, and sort of about that, and just to say, you know, I agree with your sentiments about sending guys in to be - to rescue them, putting, you know, all the military lives in danger, as well.

CONAN: Yeah. Yeah.

Mr. KELLER: Thank you for that. I got to say, it's not easy stopping news these days. You know, it's a kind of game of Wackamole, things pop up on Web sites. One of the things that is, I guess, a little concerting to an old-fashioned reporter is how many news outlets are prepared to publish information or broadcast information or put it up on the Web without even bothering to call and find out that it's true.

So in this case, we had a number of instances of the story popping up on a Web site here, on a - you know, in a newspaper there. When we called, almost without exception, people were understanding about the need to take it down, and they did.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. KELLER: So - but, you know, I certainly can't say that we enforced a complete blackout, nor could we.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get one more quick caller in. And this'll be Richard, Richard with us from Rochester, Minnesota.

RICHARD (Caller): Yes. Thank you. My question has really - I know this is hard to put because I know the situation is, you know, there's a lot grief to go around. But my question is, how is the process for deciding to blackout a story, how is that applied universally and how is the public's right to know still honored and upheld?

Mr. KELLER: Well, our policy regarding kidnappings is that, you know, anytime that we are asked and told, you know, by somebody in authority that publishing the information could put lives at risk, we take that very seriously. And some of these cases, the kidnappers themselves will do a video and put it up on - you know, give it to Al Jazeera, and it's already global information. And at that point, keeping it secret is just, you know, it would be silly to try.

But we do respect requests. We've done it for, you know, government organizations, non-government organizations and other journalistic organizations. And from our own experience, we are certainly inclined to think that, you know, the public's right to know is important, but if they know a little bit later and if in the process of doing that we might save a life, you know, that we will try to do that.

CONAN: Richard, thanks very much.

And 30 seconds: Are you worried that Afghanistan is becoming like Iraq a few years ago, where it was impossible for anybody to travel?

Mr. KELLER: It's definitely getting worse. I think we've heard that from all of our correspondents. And, you know, after David Rohde was kidnapped, we went through and had did a complete security inventory in both Kabul and Baghdad and in Islamabad, as well, and set up some sort of stricter protocols for when reporters go out to work. I think we'll revisit those and see if they need a little more tightening now, because the situation is just getting more menacing in Afghanistan.

CONAN: Bill Keller, I know you've got an editorial meeting. Thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. KELLER: You're welcome.

CONAN: Bill Keller, executive editor in The New York Times, with us today by phone from his office in New York.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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