Holding back an explosive story

Bill Gillespie

Bill GillespieAn FBI agent had unexpectedly dropped a potentially explosive story into the laps of the Canadian reporters covering a court appearance by Omar Khadr in Guantanamo.

The immediate impulse of the reporters was to lunge for the phone and report the breaking news.

But instead, we suppressed our competitive instincts and the news, to act with responsibility.

I believe that’s not all that unusual for most journalists and editors. But a recent public discussion reminded me that my opinion isn’t shared by our many critics and more unfortunately, by much of the public.

In mid-January, I was one of the Canadian reporters who had descended on Guantanamo to cover Khadr’s final preliminary hearing in front of a US military judge and (if Obama didn’t stop it) his trial.

Then, an FBI agent, Robert Fuller, unexpectedly dropped Maher Arar’s name into the mix.

Fuller was testifying about his interrogation in 2002 of the 15-year-old Toronto-born Canadian, two months after he had been captured by the US. He testified that one of the first things he did was show Khadr pictures of several people the FBI suspected were terrorists. He said he didn’t tell Khadr the names of the people in the pictures but instead asked him to name them. Fuller testified that Khadr immediately identified the man in one of the pictures as Maher Arar, the Syrian-born Canadian who was detained, sent to Syria, jailed and tortured about alleged links to al-Qaeda in 2002. Not only that, Fuller testified Khadr went on to volunteer that he had seen Arar at Al Qaeda safe houses in Afghanistan and perhaps at an Al Qaeda training camp.

The Canadian reporters in the Gitmo media room (Michelle Shephard of The Toronto Star, Can West’s Steven Edwards, CBC TV’s Susan Ormiston, CP’s Colin Perkel and me) couldn’t believe our ears.The implications of Fuller’s testimony were potentially explosive.

Judge Dennis O’Connor’s Commission found no evidence that Arar had connections to terrorism. And just weeks after returning from prison in Syria, Arar had made a point of saying he’d never been in Afghanistan. Was O’Connor wrong? Had Canadians paid $10.3 million in compensation for Arar without knowing the whole story? It was clear that Fuller was bringing a message from the FBI that they believed Arar was lying.
The immediate impulse of all the reporters was to call our desks in Toronto and report the news. But we didn’t. We couldn’t be certain that the Maher Arar he was talking about was ‘the’ Canadian Maher Arar;  we couldn’t access the lawyers and other court personnel who could confirm Arar’s identity until the court session was over and they made their usual trip to the media room to be scrummed. (The Pentagon requires reporters to observe Military court proceeding from a soundproof, glassed-in room at the back of the courtroom or on a closed-circuit feed from the media room.)

We all agreed that as unlikely as it seemed that Fuller was referring to another Maher Arar, the damage we might do to Arar’s reputation (and not incidentally, our own) was too great a risk. So we all alerted our desks about Fuller’s testimony but told our editors to embargo the story until we confirmed the man he was talking about was Canada’s Maher Arar.
Two hours later when the defense and the prosecution lawyers confirmed Arar’s identity, we filed our stories.
Agreeing amongst ourselves—that’s five reporters working for competing Canadian news organizations—to embargo the story until we were sure of our facts was, in my opinion, a responsible decision and not all that unusual. In my experience journalists and news editors have a respect for high ethics and fact.
But my opinion isn’t shared by our many critics and unfortunately, by much of the public, as I was reminded just a week later back in Toronto.

Maher Arar was the featured speaker at an event sponsored by the Canadian Journalism Foundation (I was one of the panelists). He said that for the past five years there has been a smear campaign against him consisting of leaks to journalists from anonymous sources inside Canadian and US intelligence agencies and the Canadian government. Arar argued that journalists should understand this by now, should stop allowing ourselves to be manipulated and stop reporting the leaks.  

Another panelist, Kerry Pither, an activist who has written a book on Arar, argued that the Canadian reporters in Guantanamo should not have reported Fuller’s testimony at least not until we had time to investigate Fuller’s credibility.

(The next day Fuller backed off somewhat when confronted with a report he wrote shortly after he interrogated Khadr in October 2002, which said Khadr recognized the man in picture immediately but needed several minutes to remember his name.)
The tone of Pither and Arar’s remarks, as I took them, was that journalists are a careless lot with more interest in scoring a front-page byline than getting their facts straight.
To my mind the way we handled Fuller’s testimony says otherwise.
I didn’t feel good about suppressing my competitive instincts for even a few hours, but in this case it was the right thing to do. Moreover it’s the norm in my experience for Canadian news editors and journalist to handle sensitive information ethically and responsibly.
At the CBC we are very careful about reporting potentially damaging information, including leaks from anonymous sources. We consider the source’s credibility and seek confirmation of the information from at least two additional sources. As far as I know that’s the norm in most newsrooms.
The journalists I know are responsible people who work very hard to verify their facts. They sometimes do make mistakes, but they usually don’t.
Having said that, we do have a perception problem that is caused in part by our reluctance to confront our critics head-on.
The story we do the worst job of reporting is our own.

Bill Gillespie is CBC Radio’s security correspondent. An award-winning journalist and former foreign correspondent, he has travelled extensively in Afghanistan, Iraq, Chechnya and the Russian Caucusus. He witnessed the fall of the Taliban, the deadly siege of Beslan School Number One, and was in Baghdad’s central square the day Saddam’s statue came down. Since his return to Canada in 2005, he has studied and reported on Canada’s intelligence agencies, the Air India Inquiry and accused Canadian terror suspect Omar Khadr.