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.
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 more problems and more complications for this American news paper.
After the story's publication, ARTHUR BRISBANE, the New York Times' foreign editor, receives 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.
Seeking to understand why the piece was so one-sided, ARTHUR BRISBANE picks up that "the problem traced back to Mr. Arango's decision to travel unidentified with the ambassador."
When Tim Arango submits his story draft to the foreign desk, BRISBANE informs Susan Chira, the then assistant managing editor for news, that Arango has not identified himself as a Times reporter because of restrictions on journalists' access to Camp Ashraf, and Ms. Chira tells him that he should not include any comments made by camp residents, "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.
According to ARTHUR BRISBANE:
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.
In BRISBANE's point of view:
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.
Tim 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).
Susan Chira, in an e-mail message, defended 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.
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.
New York Times' foreign editor ends:
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.