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CNN’s al Qaeda video coup

Aug 19, 2002  •  Post A Comment

CNN has obtained a video library of terrorist training tapes belonging to Osama Bin Laden and plans to begin airing reports on them today.
Topics such as how to assassinate someone, how to take hostages and how to make pure dynamite are included in the carefully cataloged library of tapes, which number in the dozens.
One tape shows dogs slowly dying after being exposed to some sort of gas.
Nic Robertson, CNN’s primary correspondent in Kabul since summer 2001, obtained the tapes in a perilous adventure that began in late July.
A source he had come to trust over several months-and who, reciprocally, trusted Mr. Robertson-showed up with a stunning tape and the promise of many more just like it in his hometown, hundreds of bone-rattling miles away. There Mr. Robertson would spend seven hours talking with the people who possessed the tapes.
“I believe I was singled out because my contact knew the people with the tapes and my contact trusted me,” Mr. Robertson told Electronic Media last week.
The journey presented many opportunities for Mr. Robertson to think about the brutal death of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl at the hands of terrorists who had lured him away with the promise of a good story.
“I was concerned about what happened to Daniel,” Mr. Robertson said. “It certainly crossed my mind that we may be being set up. However, I trusted my contact, and I took all the precautions we are trained to take in CNN’s hostile-environment training course.”
“There were some chances taken, and some gutsy ones at that,” said Teya Ryan, executive VP and general manager of CNN/U.S.
Mr. Robertson’s personal safety as he made the 17-hour trip to and from the unidentified meeting place was not his only concern. He was so worried that word of his scoop would leak, he couldn’t even risk sharing the news in phone calls with his wife back in London. The risk of being scooped was so great that he didn’t dare put the many tapes of varied lengths up on the satellite. CNN will not say how its correspondent did manage to get the tapes safely out of Afghanistan.
CNN, which has copied the library of tapes in its entirety for safekeeping, would not give complete details of the transaction by which it obtained the library. CNN will say only that the videotapes were “obtained” from a non-al Qaeda source.
Springing into action
Stunned silence greeted Mr. Robertson when he popped one of the tapes into a VCR for viewing by executives at CNN headquarters in Atlanta less than two weeks ago. The tape showed gas seeping up through the floor of a room built in rough Afghani style and a chained dog beginning to die. Over the course of the tape, two or three dogs that looked like Labrador retriever puppies would apparently die. The dogs’ wailing and flailing was excruciating to the senior staffers gathered in the room.
Soon though, shock turned into action. About two weeks ago senior producers, under the coordination of Fuzz Hogan, the executive producer of CNN’s investigative unit, began to reach out to experts who could authenticate, analyze and interpret the video library, which covers at least five years and which had been labeled and cataloged in Arabic.
On one of the tapes, Bin Laden and seldom photographed members of his security team fire guns into the air as they prepare to announce the renewed jihad against the United States at a 1998 press conference that has become known as al Qaeda’s “coming out party” and that heretofore has been seen only in still photos.
On another tape is CNN International’s coverage of Sept. 11, when airliners hijacked by 19 members of al Qaeda plowed into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania meadow.
There are some taped demonstrations of bomb making, for which written instructions had been found by CNN’s Christiane Amanpour after President Bush’s war on terrorism opened Afghanistan to the international press. There are lessons in firing small arms, rappelling down what looks like a cliff and assassinating someone.
Some of the big-idea lessons-how to make a bomb, for example-have been taped over the middle of movies, a choice CNN’s experts say was clearly meant as a cover.
The most disturbing tape, say several people who have seen the tapes, is the one on which the dogs succumb to the chemical agent. In some portions of the tape, obscured faces and feet of men are seen and voices are heard in the background.
Vanity tapes were also found. For example, Bin Laden had his own camera running in 1998 while he was interviewed by ABC newsman John Miller and again in 1997 when he was interviewed by Peter Bergen, then a CNN correspondent and producer and now a CNN terrorism analyst.
While CNN will start its weeklong series this morning with the doomed dogs and the questions that tape poses for the world, CNN executives were still wrestling late last week with just how much to show, a decision on which they can expect to be second-guessed by academics, professional critics and competitors.
“Yes, it is hard to look at,” Ms. Ryan said. “We are in the news business. There are times when what we do is not easy to look at. We have a public responsibility to air that responsibly. This is staring terrorism right square in the face.”
Sharing the tapes
CNN said the tapes will be made available to government intelligence agencies. “We are sharing the tapes with appropriate authorities because of our concern for the safety and well-being of people around the world,” CNN said in a statement.
Furthermore, “In an effort to report on the tapes, we have shared the tapes with many sources both in and out of government,” a CNN spokesman said.
CNN will share some of the video with its affiliates and is likely to make a limited amount of the material available to its competitors, who will be expected to give CNN credit.
Throughout this week, CNN will air extensive excerpts from the tapes. Promos were scheduled to begin appearing on CNN over the weekend. Each day’s packages will hew to a theme and will be followed by discussion with Mr. Robertson, national correspondent Mike Boettcher and others with relevant expertise. The packages will appear in each of CNN’s most strategic programs, from “American Morning With Paula Zahn” to “Connie Chung Tonight” and “NewsNight With Aaron Brown.” A “CNN Special Report” will wrap up the series on Sunday.
There is no overlooking the bragging rights Mr. Robertson’s scoop gives CNN, which has been hammering at the message that while Fox News Channel attracts more viewers on the average day, CNN offers more journalism day in and day out.
“We keep saying what we are, and sometimes it gets reported accurately, and sometimes it doesn’t,” Ms. Ryan said. “But we keep hitting home runs. We keep doing top-notch journalism, top-notch reporting, and we’re just staying to our guns. I just think this is the most clear and evident example of that.”