‘WSJ’s Tough Decision Over al-Qaida Laptop

By: Allan Wolper

Ethics Corner Column

It is hard to keep perspective during wartime.

Military planes arrive with the bodies of men and women who sacrificed their lives for those they leave behind. The line between the ethical and the unethical is blurred when you have a story that could result in the death of thousands.

Paul E. Steiger, managing editor of The Wall Street Journal, recently returned to his World Financial Center office, which he was forced to leave after the fall of New York’s World Trade Center last Sept. 11. From experience, he knows how tough it is to make the correct call on stories affecting the well-being of U.S. soldiers.

During the Gulf War, one of his reporters learned the name of a manufacturer that produced equipment for Saddam Hussein’s radar system. It was something editors love to include in their stories. Still, Steiger killed it. “The Pentagon told us that if we disclosed that information, then the Iraqis would know which way our planes were heading,” he recalled. He and his editors debated using that nugget before deciding to pull it. “That is the only time I have ever kept anything out of the paper,” he said. “If you know something, you use it 99% of the time.”

The next time Steiger had that kind of decision to make was last December when two of his reporters in Kabul, Afghanistan, bought a used laptop computer that turned out to have a hard drive bursting with information about the al-Qaida terrorist network.

New York was reeling from Sept. 11. The toll of the dead and missing was scrolled across the bottom of TV all-news channels every day. There were reports about a possible second strike. “Some of those computer files were coded. Some were in Arabic,” Steiger said. “We weren’t sure that there would be plans in there for another 9/11.” Steiger felt he needed the expertise of American intelligence agents to fill in the holes. It was the only way to learn what other secrets were stored in the laptop his writers bought for $1,100. So the Journal shared the computer files with the spooks — and then published a story about what it did.

“It was an extraordinary case,” Steiger said. “Turning over those al-Qaida files was not something that we did lightly. We wanted to assure ourselves that what we had was real. If we had not given them the files, if we had kept our mouths shut, if we had kept that material to ourselves and something happened, then John Bussey [the Journal‘s foreign editor] and I could never look each other in the eye again.”

The Wall Street Journal‘s intelligence consultation is still being debated. Some media critics scorched the paper for cooperating with the feds. The most emotional outburst came from James C. Goodale, the New York Times Co.’s former vice chairman and general counsel. Goodale told the Columbia Journalism Review in its July/August issue that Steiger should have handed over the computer without publishing a story about it if he was intent simply on pre-empting another terrorist attack.

But doing so would have turned the Journal‘s reporters into secret agents with press cards. That kind of decision, right or wrong, has to be made out in the open.

Goodale has one more devastating theory. He has wondered whether the Journal‘s disclosure about its involvement with American intelligence might have prompted the kidnapping of Daniel Pearl the following week. Not too far-fetched — considering the fact that places such as Pakistan are filled with journalists who hold down lucrative side jobs as government spies.

Goodale, a past chairman of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), knows that people in many countries, especially in the Middle East, believe that American journalists are adjuncts of the CIA. CPJ believes that this perception endangers all journalists.

“It is not easy these days to establish sources in places like Pakistan,” said Frank Smyth, CPJ’s representative in Washington. “It is important that the press can go to places to find out what people are thinking. What the WSJ did makes having an American passport a danger for all of us.”

Smyth understands the rationale that motivated Steiger. “We always see things from an American point of view,” he said. “To be honest, no one is neutral on 9/11.”

Every journalist is haunted by the videos of people jumping from the World Trade Center, of families waiting for word about missing relatives, of cops and firefighters sifting through the smoky rubble with the hope of finding lost comrades.

No one has felt it more than in New York. Its firehouses and police-precinct headquarters are covered with photos and poignant tributes to the hundreds of colleagues who died in the Sept. 11 holocaust. Amid all this suffering, journalists have to be careful.

“We must not be agents of government,” said the Journal‘s Steiger. “We are journalists. We must always be able to get at the truth. Jingoism in the long run is not useful.”

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