David Rohde's Great Escape and the NYT's Great Falsehood

In Part Two of New York Times reporter David Rohde's account of his captivity by the Taliban, we learn two things: 1) The Taliban lies, and 2) it seems like the New York Times' public relations professionals lie, too.

We've been waiting a long time for Rohde's first-person account of his ordeal—we found it very strange that he declined to comment to his own newspaper immediately after his release—and we're glad he's writing it. Yesterday he recounted his kidnapping, and today he tells of his transfer into Pakistan's tribal region. (He also answers reader questions—many of them quite hostile—here.)

Rohde was mostly treated well by his captors—at least thus far in the narrative—with some spoiled food and psychological torment being the worst of it. His kidnappers played cruel tricks on him, telling him at one point, for instance, that they were going to kill his driver Asad in a week. Rohde—who felt a heavy responsibility for the fates of Asad and Tahir, his translator—panicked. A couple days later they claimed it was all a misunderstanding, "there was no deadline" for Asad.

The cruelest trick of all was played by the Taliban commander that Rohde latched onto as the most reasonable of his kidnappers, Atiqullah. He was friendly, and assured Rohde that he would be released in due time. But he also lied: He assured Rohde at one point that he was being moved within Afghanistan, when in fact he was being transported to the Pakistani tribal regions, a much more dangerous place for an American. Atiqullah would disappear for days at a time, and every time he returned, Rohde's hopes would brighten a bit. At the end of today's installment, we learn the truth:

In conversations when our guards left the room, Tahir and Asad each separately whispered to me that Atiqullah was, in fact, Abu Tayyeb. They had known since the day we were kidnapped, they said, but dared not tell me. They asked me to stay silent as well. Abu Tayyeb had vowed to behead them if they revealed his true identity.

Abu Tayyeb had invited us to an interview, betrayed us and then pretended that he was a commander named Atiqullah.

I was despondent and left with only one certainty: We had no savior among the Taliban.

We also learn that Rohde's captors were quite eager to get the news out of his kidnapping. They wanted to make a video of him to release to the media, but relented only after Rohde convinced them that they'd be able to get a better bargain in exchanging prisoners if the deal was secret. Rohde's main motivation was to spare his family the stress of seeing him in a video. Later, they make a video of him for release only to his family, but Rohde suspects that they'll send it to the media anyway.

All of this flatly contradicts what we were told in March by Catherine Mathis, then the Times' senior vice president for communications. At the time, Rohde's kidnapping was still an open secret, the subject of a press blackout enforced by the Times. Since the news of Rohde's captivity was freely available on the internet, we were preparing an item on it, and on the blackout. When we contacted the Times, Mathis asked us not to publish, saying in no uncertain terms that Rohde's captors had told the Times specifically that his life would be endangered if news of his situation became widely reported. We pressed this point: How does Mathis know that further coverage would actually increase the risk to Rohde? "His captors told us that it would," she said. "You can't get a better source than that."

We agreed not to write about it, and Rohde reached freedom several months later. We've noticed before that, since his release, Rohde has made comments suggesting that Mathis' line to us wasn't true: In June, Times editor Bill Keller quoted Rohde as saying the press blackout was a good thing because his captors seemed intensely interested in his ransom value, something that seems to contradict Mathis' that they didn't want any coverage. At the time, we asked Mathis to resolve the apparent inconsistency, and she declined. She has since left the Times, and is chief of communications for Standard & Poor's.

There were many good arguments for and against breaking the press blackout. Mathis decided to press one against it that relied on factual claims about the Taliban's wishes. It went like this: "If you publish, David Rohde will be at greater risk. My evidence for this is that the people who have control of Rohde told me that it is so." It seems clear to us, based on Rohde's account thus far, that those claims were false. It may be the case that, by the time we put the question to the Times in March, the Taliban's wishes had changed. And it may be the case that, when dealing with the Taliban, no one knows anything and fragmented information ricocheted around the Times and people got confused. We've called Mathis for explanation, and asked the Times for a reason not to think that we were deliberately lied to. We haven't heard back yet.

All's well that ends well. We remain conflicted about the merits of the Rohde press blackout, but we obviously went along with it, and that says something about our feelings on the matter. It's hard to fault the Times for finding any argument that worked in keeping people from writing about it. But a lie is a lie. And newspapers have certain self-imposed obligations with respect to honesty. If it took dishonesty to keep Rohde as safe as possible under the circumstances, then that's what it took. But we think the Times should explain itself. Maybe we're wrong, and misreading the record. If so, we've given the Times plenty of opportunities to set us straight, and they've refused.

UPDATE: The Times' Diane McNulty responds, "Initially we were told by the kidnappers that we needed to keep it quiet for David's safety. But at some point later we started to receive mixed messages. Some faction of the Taliban seemed to want media attention but we were unable to get clarification of whether they spoke for those in charge of David."

In today's story, Rohde recounts his initial conversation with his wife, conducted roughly eight or ten days after the kidnapping, thusly:

"Make a deal now or they will make it public," I said. "They want to put a video out to the media."

Kristen repeated my words back to me.

"It will make it a big political problem," I said.

So if it is the case that, initially, the Times was hearing from the kidnappers that they "needed to keep it quiet for David's safety," that information contradicted what Rohde himself was telling his wife at the time about his kidnappers' desires. It may very well be true that the best way to keep Rohde safe was to keep it quiet. They did keep it quiet, and he did stay safe. But it does not seem, by our reading of Rohde's account, that during the early days of his captivity his captors intended to harm him if news of the kidnapping got out. They wanted it out, and Rohde told his wife that they wanted it out.