Friday, September 08, 2006

New York Times Ignored Torture and Homicide: Columbia University School of Journalism

Failures of Imagination

By Eric Umansky
Columbia Journalism Review
Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism

Carlotta Gall was curious. It was early December 2002, and Gall, the Afghanistan correspondent for The New York Times, had just seen a press release from the U.S. military announcing the death of a prisoner at its Bagram Air Base. Soon thereafter the military issued a second release about another detainee death at Bagram. “The fact that two had died within weeks of each other raised alarm bells,” recalls Gall. “I just wanted to know more. And I came up against a blank wall. The military wouldn’t release their names; they wouldn’t say where they released the bodies.”

Gall started calling the governors of provinces, she says, “asking if a family had received a body back from Bagram in their province.” None had, but Gall did learn that U.S. forces had detained some suspects near the eastern border town of Khost.

She visited Khost and left empty-handed, but a few weeks later, she got another tip and traveled back. The body of one of the detainees had been returned, a young taxi driver known as Dilawar. Gall met with Dilawar’s family, and his brother handed Gall a death certificate, written in English, that the military had issued. “It said, ‘homicide,’ and I remember gasping and saying, ‘Oh, my God, they killed him,’” says Gall. “I hadn’t really been thinking that before.”

The press release announcing Dilawar’s death stated that the taxi driver had died of a heart attack, a conclusion repeated by the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, then-Lieutenant General Daniel McNeill, whom Gall later cited as saying that Dilawar had died because his arteries were 85 percent blocked. (“We haven’t found anything that requires us to take extraordinary action,” McNeill declared.) But the death certificate, the authenticity of which the military later confirmed to Gall, stated that Dilawar — who was just twenty-two years old — died as a result of “blunt force injuries to lower extremities complicating coronary artery disease.”

Gall filed a story, on February 5, 2003, about the deaths of Dilawar and another detainee. It sat for a month, finally appearing two weeks before the U.S. invasion of Iraq. “I very rarely have to wait long for a story to run,” says Gall. “If it’s an investigation, occasionally as long as a week.”

Gall’s story, it turns out, had been at the center of an editorial fight. Her piece was “the real deal. It referred to a homicide. Detainees had been killed in custody. I mean, you can’t get much clearer than that,” remembers Roger Cohen, then the Times’s foreign editor. “I pitched it, I don’t know, four times at page-one meetings, with increasing urgency and frustration. I laid awake at night over this story. And I don’t fully understand to this day what happened. It was a really scarring thing. My single greatest frustration as foreign editor was my inability to get that story on page one.”

Doug Frantz, then the Times’s investigative editor and now the managing editor of the Los Angeles Times, says Howell Raines, then the Times’s top editor, and his underlings “insisted that it was improbable; it was just hard to get their mind around. They told Roger to send Carlotta out for more reporting, which she did. Then Roger came back and pitched the story repeatedly. It’s very unusual for an editor to continue to push a story after the powers that be make it clear they’re not interested. Roger, to his credit, pushed.” (Howell Raines declined requests for comment.)

“Compare Judy Miller’s WMD stories to Carlotta’s story,” says Frantz. “On a scale of one to ten, Carlotta’s story was nailed down to ten. And if it had run on the front page, it would have sent a strong signal not just to the Bush administration but to other news organizations.”

Instead, the story ran on page fourteen under the headline "U.S.Military Investigating Death of Afghan in Custody." (It later became clear that the investigation began only as a result of Gall’s digging.)