Does NYT correspondent Stephen Farrell bear some responsibility for the deaths of his interpreter and a British soldier in the raid that freed him from captivity this week?
That's the implication of an article in yesterday's Daily Telegraph, one of England's most respected daily papers, which raised serious questions about Farrell's decision to report from the Kunduz region last week -- a choice that resulted in his kidnapping and a pre-dawn raid Wednesday by British commandos that freed the 46-year-old NYT correspondent, but resulted in the deaths of his interpreter and a British soldier.
Under the headline, "Army anger as soldier killed saving journalist who ignored Taliban warning," the Telegraph reported yesterday:
Afghan police and intelligence officers repeatedly warned journalists including Mr Farrell that it was too dangerous to go to the site. Kunduz is a notorious Taliban northern stronghold and was one of the last holdouts of the regime when it was toppled in 2001.
Farrell and his interpreter were kidnapped on Saturday on the reporting trip to the Kunduz province, where they were investigating civilian casualties in the wake of a deadly NATO airstrike the day before.
The telegraph quotes two British military officials, both anonymously, suggesting that the operation -- and resulting deaths - could have been avoided if Farrell had heeded the warnings not to report in the Kunduz province that day.
One, described as a "senior Army source," told the Telegraph:
“When you look at the number of warnings this person had it makes you really wonder whether he was worth rescuing, whether it was worth the cost of a soldier’s life. In the future special forces might think twice in a similar situation.”
A second comment from an unnamed "military source" to the Telegraph was even harsher:
“This reporter went to this area against the advice of the Afghan police. So thanks very much Stephen Farrell, your irresponsible act has led to the death of one of our boys.”
Farrell's own extensive account of his ordeal, posted yesterday on the NYT website, makes no mention of advance safety warnings from Afghan officials. He only acknowledges the warnings of one local of an ominous Taliban presence as they worked (emphases added):
A crowd began to gather, time passed and we grew nervous. I do not know how long we were there, but it was uncomfortably long. I am comfortable with the decision to go to the riverbank, but fear we spent too long there.
I said, “We should go,” almost exactly as Sultan said the same thing.
An old man said we should not tarry. The driver went to the car. Even as we were carrying our gear bags to the car, villagers shouted, “Taliban,” and scattered away from the river. Our driver fled, with the keys. His instincts were immaculate — he survived.
Sultan and I fled a shorter distance, stopped and tried to gauge where we were running, and from whom. Should we stay and hope they did not cross the river toward us, or flee straight across unknown fields and run the risk of being cut down by Taliban in the field ahead of us, shooting at anything that moved?
We hovered, and got caught.
As for any advance checks by Farrell regarding security risks associated with the reporting trip, the reporter had only this to report: "The drivers made a few phone calls and said the road north appeared to be safe until mid- to late afternoon."
But the Telegraph article yesterday describes what appear to be previous admonitions from Afghan police and security officials that were apparently ignored by Farrell when he proceeded on Saturday, and that aren't mentioned in any NYT account of the episode.
While stopping short of placing full blame for the deaths on Farrell, the article did quote by name a former special forces soldier with the British Army who had harsh words for the Kabul-based correspondent:
Tim Collins, a former SAS officer, said the journalist had a “big thank you to give to the people who gave their lives to make up for his mistakes”. He said: “These soldiers were doing their job but I would say Stephen Farrell would be wise not to crow to loudly about his experience because his incompetence has cost a life. Unfortunately in journalism you do come across people who believe they are infallible.”
In an interview with NPR's "The Takeaway" on Wednesday, NYT executive editor Bill Keller said that the NYT may re-examine its safety protocols in light of the Farrell kidnapping.
"The first thing we're going to do is have Steven come out and do yet another security review," Keller said. "The situation has gotten more and more perilous, not so much in Kabul but once you get out into the countryside. We had set up some new protocols for reporters traveling out in the field, and we're going to take another look at those now to find out whether they're strict enough."