Reporting on the People’s Mujahedeen of Iran and their complicated plight at Camp Ashraf in Iraq has proved challenging for The New York Times. So when reporter Tim Arango had the opportunity to visit the camp with Ambassador Lawrence E. Butler, an American diplomat negotiating with the group, he took it.
Because the camp has been off-limits to journalists, Mr. Arango “embedded” with Mr. Butler’s contingent and did not identify himself to the group. The result of going incognito was, unfortunately, more problems and more complications.
A bit of background is helpful. The group of 3,000 at Camp Ashraf had once been, as Mr. Arango’s story reported, “a powerful paramilitary organization bent on overthrowing the government in Iran. In the 1970s, the group killed Americans in Tehran, and after being given refuge by Saddam Hussein its members were suspected of serving as a mercenary unit that took part in his violent suppression of the Kurds in the north of Iraq and the Shiites in the south.”
With such a history, the group has been precariously housed at Camp Ashraf, inside a hostile Iraq and not far from the border of a hostile Iran. With the American military’s departure from Iraq coming soon, Mr. Arango noted, “the situation at Camp Ashraf is among the most vexing of the unfinished chapters of the American war here.”
It has fallen to Ambassador Butler to negotiate with the People’s Mujahedeen of Iran (often referred to by the acronym MEK) to move them out of the camp – first to another camp farther from the Iranian border and ultimately to other countries for resettlement.
In his story, published July 22, Mr. Arango described an encounter between the ambassador and camp residents during one of the ambassador’s sessions there. The story provided background information and recorded Mr. Butler’s comments to the group and also some additional comments from him in interviews away from the negotiating session.
The story makes apparent that Mr. Butler is pretty frustrated with the MEK, takes a dim view of the group’s hiring of prominent Americans – including retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark – to speak on their behalf and feels strongly about the group’s activities in the 1970s when, according to the State Department, it killed U.S. personnel in Tehran and supported the takeover of the U.S. embassy there in 1979.
“These people have blood on their hands,” the ambassador is quoted as telling Mr. Arango during the negotiating session.
What’s unusual is that the story is so heavily weighted with the ambassador’s words and point of view. The only direct quote from someone with the MEK is five words from an unidentified person claiming General Clark and other American speakers were not “doing it for the money.”
After the story’s publication, I received a complaint from an MEK representative, detailing numerous points and capturing the essential problem of the story: that it read like a soliloquy by the ambassador.
“During that two-and-a-half hour negotiation session, was Mr. Butler talking to a wall?” wrote Shahin Gobadi, a spokesman for the group. “I mean throughout a two-and-a-half hour negotiation session, there was not any response by Ashraf residents to Mr. Butler’s amazing lies and bewildering insistence to relocate Ashraf residents in Iraq (that is tantamount to signing their death warrant), worthy of mention in a 1,200-word article? Could this be construed as providing a complete, fair and impartial picture of negotiations?”
As I sought to understand why the piece was so one-sided, I learned that the problem traced back to Mr. Arango’s decision to travel unidentified with the ambassador.
When he submitted his story draft to the foreign desk, he informed the foreign editor, Susan Chira, that he had not identified himself as a Times reporter because of restrictions on journalists’ access to Camp Ashraf, according to Ms. Chira, who has since been named assistant managing editor for news. Mr. Arango suggested to her that, as a result, he should not include any comments made by camp residents. MEK members’ comments were unpublishable, Ms. Chira told me, “since they were not knowingly in the presence of a reporter.”
She suggested, though, that he should solicit comment from the MEK after the fact. So Mr. Arango submitted questions by email, which elicited a lengthy response from the MEK.
The problem was not cured, however, because so little of the MEK response was incorporated in the story. One simply does not learn from this story why the group seems so intransigent about its unwillingness to relocate, disband or accept an end to American protection. The MEK’s point of view on this was an essential, but missing, element in a story that so thoroughly reported on the ambassador’s perspective.
(Certainly, it is true that the MEK remains a very controversial group, within the U.S. as well as Iraq and Iran. The group is still listed as a terrorist organization by the U.S., although a federal court has ordered the State Department to review the classification. In addition, the veracity of statements from the group cannot be relied upon in some instances – for example, the MEK denied it paid General Clark and yet he acknowledged to The Times that he had been paid by the group. These issues, however, don’t remove The Times’s obligations to get the MEK’s side.)
In sum, two problems stand out. Because the MEK’s comments at the meeting could not be included, The Times sought to obtain the group’s perspective after the fact and then did not do a thorough job of incorporating them. Second, there is the matter of Mr. Arango’s status as an unidentified member of Mr. Butler’s negotiating party.
Mr. Arango, in an email, provided more background on this aspect: “I was invited by Ambassador Butler to accompany him to the camp for one of his sessions, to embed with him like we do with the military (this mission was State Department, but Amb. Butler’s regular job here is with U.S. military and we were accompanied by U.S. military). The idea was I would sit in the back and observe – not be introduced as a reporter, but not be introduced as something I wasn’t (like a State Dept. employee, as the MEK claims).”
Indeed, among the claims in Mr. Gobadi’s complaint was that a State Department official at the negotiating session did identify Mr. Arango as a State Department representative. However, Mr. Arango said he did not hear this and the State Department told my assistant, Joseph Burgess, that this did not take place.
Ms. Chira, in an e-mail message, defended Mr. Arango’s decision to go unidentified. “While it is of course unusual for a reporter not to identify himself, I thought it defensible in very restricted and rare circumstances. We do enter countries without visas or publicly proclaiming ourselves as journalists when we believe there is something newsworthy and when other attempts to gain access have failed – the most recent example was Anthony Shadid’s trip to Syria,” she wrote. “We do attempt to gain access to places that seek to keep reporters out. Camp Ashraf has been a restricted area, despite requests to visit it. It is a point of great tension between the Iraqi and American governments, and there are clearly lives at risk. So it seemed to meet the newsworthy bar.”
I think Ms. Chira makes a reasonable case for Mr. Arango’s decision to accompany the ambassador without identifying himself. However, given that the resulting story detailed the pointed perspective of Mr. Butler, it was incumbent on The Times to present a much more thorough version of the MEK’s perspective. It could be argued that this would have been very hard to do in a story constructed like this one – one in which the reader is treated to numerous quotes captured during a live negotiating session.
With the American presence in Iraq possibly close to ending, it would be ideal if The Times made another attempt soon to report on Camp Ashraf, this time taking pains to detail the MEK’s point of view.
By ARTHUR S. BRISBANE