Why AP is publishing story about missing American tied to CIA

The Associated Press today is publishing an article about serious blunders at the Central Intelligence Agency and an effort to cover them up. At the heart of the story is a retired FBI agent, Robert Levinson, who was recruited as a spy by a rogue group of analysts inside the CIA. Without any authority to do so, the analysts sent Levinson into Iran, where he disappeared in 2007.

His condition and whereabouts are not known and the Iranian government says it has no information.

Senior Vice President and Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll explains why AP decided to publish this story:

Publishing this article was a difficult decision. This story reveals serious mistakes and improper actions inside the U.S. government’s most important intelligence agency. Those actions, the investigation and consequences have all been kept secret from the public.

Publishing articles that help the public hold their government to account is part of what journalism is for, and especially so at The Associated Press, which pursues accountability journalism whenever it can. This seems particularly true on this subject at a time when the decisions of intelligence agencies are being extensively debated.

The AP has been seeking information on Levinson’s whereabouts from governments, agencies and any other source possible for several years. Government officials tell us that they, too, have hit a wall, though their efforts continue.

In the absence of any solid information about Levinson’s whereabouts, it has been impossible to judge whether publication would put him at risk. It is almost certain that his captors already know about the CIA connection but without knowing exactly who the captors are, it is difficult to know whether publication of Levinson’s CIA mission would make a difference to them. That does not mean there is no risk. But with no more leads to follow, we have concluded that the importance of the story justifies publication.

TIME names Muhammed Muheisen best wire photographer of 2013

Calling his work “indispensable for news outlets the world over,” TIME magazine today named Associated Press photographer Muhammed Muheisen the best wire photographer of 2013.

Pakistan's Chief Photographer Muhammed Muheisen shows Afghan refugee children how the camera works, in a poor neighborhood on the outskirts of Islamabad, Pakistan, Monday, Oct. 21, 2013. (AP Photo/Nathalie Bardou)

Pakistan’s Chief Photographer Muhammed Muheisen shows Afghan refugee children how the camera works, in a poor neighborhood on the outskirts of Islamabad, Pakistan, Monday, Oct. 21, 2013. (AP Photo/Nathalie Bardou)

Muheisen, who is based in Islamabad, has captured images of both daily life and of conflict in countries throughout the region. He’s won numerous awards throughout his career and was part of the team that earned the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for breaking news photography documenting the civil war in Syria.

“Viewers everywhere are richer for Muheisen’s compassion, his devotion to his craft and his unwavering, unblinking engagement with the lives and the issues around him,” TIME said.

The magazine also noted that his pictures have appeared more often than those from any other photographer this year in its LightBox “Pictures of the Week” feature.

TIME is not the only publication to highlight his tremendous work. New York Times “Lens” blog editor James Estrin recently tweeted that images by Muheisen had been featured 197 times.

“Muhammed is an extremely talented photographer who time after time manages to win the trust of his subjects in order to record scenes as though he were invisible,” said Santiago Lyon, AP vice president and director of photography. “His understanding and use of light is exquisite.”

TIME also noted the “outstanding work over the past 12 months” by AP photographers David Guttenfelder and Jerome Delay.

See a collection of Muheisen’s work on APImages.com, and watch him discuss his work in Syria.

AP “flashes” – what they’re all about

Mandela Flash

The “flash” we sent last week on Nelson Mandela’s death brought a new flurry of attention to AP flashes. What are they and how often do we send them?

A flash is our first word of a breaking story of transcendent importance, a story we expect to be one of the very top stories of the year. We average one or two flashes a year. They’re never more than one sentence, and frequently very condensed: “Bells ringing signaling election of a pope.”

In the old days when AP subscribers received news over teletype machines, a flash rang a series of bells on the machine, sending editors rushing to see what was happening. Usually there were 10 to 15 bells for a flash, but AP teletype operators had to type a “bell” symbol to trigger each ring, and in the excitement of a big story the number could vary.

Kennedy Flash

Today, AP editors still put a “flash” designation on stories (by clicking a “flash priority” button on our editing screens). That marks the item electronically as being a flash and may insert the word “FLASH” into the story as well. But subscribers set their computer systems to react to that code in different ways. Some systems sound an audible alarm or pop up the flash in the middle of the editor’s screen. Other systems may simply move the flash into the queue of other urgent stories. (AP identifies less transcendent, but still urgent, breaking news as “APNewsAlerts” without the flash designation.

Sometimes we know in advance that a story will merit a flash. This was the plan for Nelson Mandela’s death. But big news can happen without warning. When the United States killed Osama bin Laden and Pope Benedict XVI decided to resign, editors decided on the spot that a flash was warranted.

Here are some of our other flashes from the past 10 years:

_ Nov. 6, 2012 – Barack Obama re-elected president

_ Dec. 18, 2011 – North Korea says supreme leader Kim Jong Il has died

_ Feb. 11, 2011 – Egyptian VP says President Hosni Mubarak steps down

_ Aug. 16, 2008 – Michael Phelps wins record eighth gold medal at Beijing Olympics

_ Feb. 19, 2008 – Official media says Fidel Castro resigns presidency

_ Dec. 27, 2007 – A party aide and a military official say Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto has died following a suicide bombing

_ Oct. 14, 2003 – China launches manned spacecraft

_ Sept. 11, 2001 – Second World Trade Center tower collapses

_ Sept. 11, 2001 – One World Trade Center tower collapses

Executive editor on why AP sought Newtown 911 tapes

The Associated Press sought the 911 calls made during the Dec. 14, 2012, shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., where the gunman, 20-year-old Adam Lanza, killed 20 children and six educators. On Wednesday, the calls were posted on the town’s website after AP prevailed in a monthslong legal effort to obtain them.

Senior Vice President and Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll explained why the AP wanted to review the tapes as follows:

“We all understand why some people have strong feelings about the release of these tapes. This was a horrible crime. It’s important to remember, though, that 911 tapes, like other police documents, are public records. Reviewing them is a part of normal newsgathering in a responsible news organization.”

“Everyone knows what happened on that awful day. What we still don’t understand is why it happened. Perhaps we never will. But it’s our job to ask questions and gather facts for stories that seek to understand why.”

Carroll also discussed why AP pursued a legal challenge on the BBC World Service.

Read the AP news story.

‘Electronic shoe leather': How AP found, verified images of train crash

The following note to staff from Senior Managing Editor Michael Oreskes explains how AP sought and verified compelling visuals in the immediate aftermath of Sunday morning’s deadly train crash in New York:

The technology may be new but the goal is eternal: Get verifiable visuals and eyewitness accounts as quickly as possible when news breaks.

The AP accomplished just that after a Metro-North commuter train careened off the rails – thanks to fast and smart work by Caleb Jones of the Nerve Center, who harnessed social media to help AP tell the story of the deadly accident with photos, video, sound and text. Call it electronic shoe leather. Caleb tracked down sources and verified that they were who they said they were and had seen what they said they saw. He did it all with accuracy and speed.

Caleb Jones

Caleb Jones

First word of the Bronx derailment came shortly after the 7:20 a.m. incident, when Photos’ David Boe alerted the Nerve Center to a call from a former AP staffer who had heard scanner traffic. Jones first alerted the East Desk, then launched a search of social media.

He found that two nearby residents had posted pictures, and sent out Twitter messages to both: “Hello. Are you on the scene? Are you available to speak with The Associated Press?”

The first to respond, Rebecca Schwartz, did not have usable photos; Jones passed her along to the East Desk, and she provided the first eyewitness account of the derailment’s aftermath.

“You could see multiple train cars off of the rails, including one train car – I couldn’t tell from where I was whether it was right into the water or just out of the water,” she said.

Edwin Valero had posted a better photo, but the accident scene, as shot from his apartment window, was still largely obscured by trees. Jones asked him if he had more, and he did – from a better location on a nearby bridge.

Cars from a Metro-North passenger train are scattered after the train derailed in the Bronx neighborhood of New York, Sunday, Dec. 1, 2013. (AP Photo/Edwin Valero)

Cars from a Metro-North passenger train are scattered after the train derailed in the Bronx neighborhood of New York, Sunday, Dec. 1, 2013. (AP Photo/Edwin Valero)

The train, all of its eight cars knocked from the tracks, had stopped just short of the water. (Original eyewitness reports said cars appeared to be in the water, and that was corrected based in part on Valero’s photos). Strewn about like playthings, some of the cars were thrown on to their sides, trapping passengers until rescuers could pull them free.

Still, Jones wanted more. He asked Valero if he could safely return to his perch to shoot video, and he did. Valero’s subsequent interview with AP Radio also provided quotes for text and TV, and the video scenes he shot with his iPhone were used in the AP package.

Valero’s signature’s shot of the wreckage in the shape of a giant question mark led the AP coverage and was the most widely used image across online media from morning into the night, displayed prominently by The New York Times, the New York Post, The Boston Globe and The Guardian and other outlets even after news organizations had their own shooters in the Bronx.

And it provided the AP with crucial information before its reporters could get to the scene.

Said East Regional Editor Karen Testa: Caleb’s work “was extraordinary in securing compelling images that not only told the story visually but helped ensure we were accurate in describing the wreckage before we had boots on the ground.”

For his intrepid and determined use of social media, which put the AP ahead on a breaking story of wide interest, Caleb Jones wins this week’s $500 prize.

A simple kindness

How much should a reporter or photographer get personally involved with the people they’re covering? AP staff seek never to become part of a news story, but there’s nothing wrong with a simple human kindness.

A recent example:

A Pakistani girl comforts her brother near her family's makeshift tent in a slum in Islamabad, Pakistan, Monday, Oct. 21, 2013. Slums, which are built on illegal lands, have neither running water or sewage disposal. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)

A Pakistani girl comforts her brother near her family’s makeshift tent in a slum in Islamabad, Pakistan, Monday, Oct. 21, 2013. Slums, which are built on illegal lands, have neither running water or sewage disposal. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)

On Oct. 21, AP Photographer Muhammed Muheisen in Islamabad made this image. The caption said it showed “a Pakistani girl comforting her brother near her family’s makeshift tent” in an Islamabad slum.

Shortly afterward Muheisen received an email from an American woman who was touched by his photo: “… I never really appreciated what I have until seeing that picture. … Is there anyway [sic] to get money, food, clothing to that family … a doll or toy or something that shows them that their life is important and the love that they have for each other is everything?”

At first we checked to see if there was a local charity the woman could contact — the best vehicle to directly help the children. But there was no group that helps this slum. Muheisen then said he would be happy to personally relay the woman’s comments to the children and bring them some small gifts. We had no trouble with that suggestion.

AP staffers have showed humanity in many other such situations. As AP reporters fanned out to cover the devastation of the 2010 Haitian earthquake, they discovered a nursing home for the elderly where 84 residents were close to death from hunger, thirst and neglect. AP wrote a stunning story about conditions there.

The story generated huge reader reaction. It included questions on AP’s Facebook page and Twitter feed about whether reporters in such situations are obligated to just report, or are allowed or expected to provide help personally.

Reporters are human. We often give what help we can in situations like this. Our staff brought the elderly people water — the first the recipients had had since the quake — and came back later with more.

The greatest assistance journalists can render to people in need is to write about their plight and encourage help and compassion. Our story on the elderly Haitians eventually brought a response from a charity group. But our staff can extend some charity themselves, and often do.

Backstory: Confirming information about secret US-Iran talks

AP’s Sunday story revealing that the U.S. and Iran had held secret talks before the announcement of a nuclear deal contained this paragraph:

The AP was tipped to the first U.S.-Iranian meeting in March shortly after it occurred, but the White House and State Department disputed elements of the account and the AP could not confirm the meeting. The AP learned of further indications of secret diplomacy in the fall and pressed the White House and other officials further. As the Geneva talks appeared to be reaching their conclusion, senior administration officials confirmed to the AP the details of the extensive outreach.

Contrary to a number of accounts since Sunday, AP did not sit on the story for several months. We aggressively pursued the story throughout that period, trying everything we could to get it to the wire. In fact, some of the information we were tipped to in March turned out to be inaccurate.

“A tip is not a story,” said AP Washington Bureau Chief Sally Buzbee. “AP was attempting to confirm, to its standards, what had happened. We published the story when we had the vital details that we needed satisfactorily confirmed.”

To quote from AP’s News Values and Principles:

“The AP routinely seeks and requires more than one source. Stories should be held while attempts are made to reach additional sources for confirmation or elaboration. In rare cases, one source will be sufficient – when material comes from an authoritative figure who provides information so detailed that there is no question of its accuracy.”

AP calls for greater White House access in New York Times op-ed

UPDATED: Dec. 11, 2013

Santiago Lyon, AP vice president and director of photography, wrote this opinion piece published in The New York Times: Obama’s Orwellian Image Control.
__

Nov. 21, 2013

The Associated Press today reiterated its call for greater access to President Barack Obama for photographers who cover the White House.

“Journalists are routinely being denied the right to photograph or videotape the President while he is performing his official duties,” said a letter delivered today to White House Press Secretary Jay Carney that was signed by AP and many other news organizations. “As surely as if they were placing a hand over a journalist’s camera lens, officials in this administration are blocking the public from having an independent view of important functions of the Executive Branch of government.”

The letter echoed concerns raised by AP since President Obama’s first days in office in 2009.

AP Vice President and Director of Photography Santiago Lyon underscored key points in the dispute:

AP Vice President and Director of Photography Santiago Lyon

AP Vice President and Director of Photography Santiago Lyon

What is The AP seeking?
The AP and other media organizations are seeking more regular photo access to the President in the Oval Office and elsewhere as he performs official duties or meets with staff. While photographers are granted some access to Oval Office meetings and other activities, it has decreased markedly under the Obama administration when compared to previous presidents. We believe we should have access to a wider selection of presidential events where we know access to be possible.

Don’t we already see photos of these occasions?
A small group of photographers and a videographer, collectively known as the “travel pool,” enjoys some access to the Oval Office and other presidential activities but increasingly the Obama administration labels events as “private” before then releasing official photos shot by White House photographers such as Pete Souza.

These images are posted on the White House Flickr page — http://www.flickr.com/photos/whitehouse — where they are available for free.

This July 1, 2013, screen grab from the Twitter Page of the official White House photographer, Pete Souza, shows a tweet featuring an image of President Barack Obama and his family listening to a tour guide inside Nelson Mandela's cell on Robben Island on June 30, 2013, in Cape Town, South Africa. The White House barred press photographers from this portion of the tour saying it was private, but then released their own photos of from Mandela's cell. (AP Photo/The White House)

This July 1, 2013, screen grab from the Twitter Page of the official White House photographer, Pete Souza, shows a tweet featuring an image of President Barack Obama and his family listening to a tour guide inside Nelson Mandela’s cell on Robben Island on June 30, 2013, in Cape Town, South Africa. The White House barred press photographers from this portion of the tour saying it was private, but then released their own photos of from Mandela’s cell. (AP Photo/The White House)

The photos on that page are visual press releases and are carefully vetted by administration employees before distribution. Such images are increasingly offered to the media by the White House in lieu of real journalistic access and we and other media organizations find this unacceptable. Media organizations generally do not reproduce written press releases verbatim, so why should we settle for these official images?

What sort of situations have the media been excluded from?
The media were prevented from documenting the President’s first day on the job – surely an historic occasion. In addition, we have been denied access to legislation being signed as well as notable foreign leaders and other visitors of interest, such as the Pakistani student activist Malala Yousafzai. In fact, since 2010 we have only been granted access to the President alone in the Oval Office on two occasions, once in 2009 and again in 2010. We have never been granted access to the President at work in the Oval Office accompanied by his staff. Previous administration regularly granted such access.

And AP isn’t the only news organization with this complaint?
The AP joined with numerous other news organizations, including all the major television networks, as well as media umbrella organizations such as APME, ASNE and the White House Correspondents’ Association to protest this diminished access in a letter to White House Press Secretary Jay Carney. In that letter we also requested a meeting with Mr. Carney to discuss the issue.

Hasn’t the AP used White House photos in the past?
We recognize that certain areas of the White House are off-limits to the media because they are secure or private areas, such as the President’s living quarters. On those occasions where something newsworthy or notable happens in these areas we sometimes distribute the official photos. Each such scenario is considered on a case-by-case basis. To be clear – we are asking to be allowed consistent, independent access into the room when the President signs legislation, greets visitors of note, or otherwise discharges his public duties.

Read a PDF of the letter to Carney.

A look at AP’s work base in Tacloban

Singapore-based photographer Maye-E Wong is among the Associated Press journalists who’ve been documenting the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan since it slammed into the Philippines Nov. 8.

Wong, who just returned home after eight days on the ground, has shared a series of images and videos on her Instagram account that give a look at conditions there.

Image

One image shows AP’s makeshift work station, seen amid much debris, at the airport in Tacloban and another shows the satellite units AP is using to file pictures and stories around the world. Another shows Wong brushing her teeth on the tarmac.

“That’s me brushing my teeth on the Tarmac of the airport in #Tacloban where we made camp (our tents in foreground) with survivors of #Typhoon #Haiyan in the #Philippines,” she writes.

Read more about what it has been like to cover the disaster from Manila-based reporter Jim Gomez.

Covering the monster typhoon

Associated Press journalists covering the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines are now living and working in two locations – the meeting room in a hotel that was largely destroyed and a spot at Tacloban’s seaside airport  enclosed by a large party tent.

Ten days after the devastating storm blew through, Manila-based AP reporter Jim Gomez recounts the scene that he and colleagues first encountered:

An aerial image taken from a Philippine Air Force helicopter shows the devastation of the first landfall by typhoon Haiyan in Guiuan, Eastern Samar province, central Philippines Monday, Nov. 11, 2013. (AP Photo/Bullit Marquez)

An aerial image taken from a Philippine Air Force helicopter shows the devastation of the first landfall by typhoon Haiyan in Guiuan, Eastern Samar province, central Philippines Monday, Nov. 11, 2013. (AP Photo/Bullit Marquez)

Covering the horrific death and devastation wrought by Typhoon Haiyan in Tacloban, a lively central Philippine city of more than 200,000 people on Leyte island, southeast of Manila, was like reporting in a war zone.

Power, transport, fuel, food, water and telephones were snuffed out by one of the most ferocious storms on record.

In knocking out all forms of communications, Haiyan prevented news of the massive death toll and devastation from rapidly filtering out beyond the island. There was a fleeting mention  by a Manila aviation official of Tacloban’s airport being ruined by storm surges. The government put the overall death toll in the central Philippines at 3 or 4. Media outfits began speculating how the country was spared from serious damage despite the monster storm’s deadly profile.

However, the next morning, when the same aviation official told news organizations  that at least 100 people perished in Tacloban alone, AP staffers sprang into action. Video journalist Kiko Rosario and his  assistant, Vicente Gonzales; photographers Bullit Marquez and Aaron Favila and I rushed to the Villamor Air Base in Manila, where air force C-130 aircraft were taking off to transport the first  disaster-response teams and food packs to the battered city. Favila got to Villamor first, quickly looked for the manifest and listed our names – a crucial action since throngs of foreign and local journalists would converge later at the air base to fight for about a dozen seats allotted to media. All commercial flights were suspended.

After landing at Tacloban’s ruined airport,  Kiko, Bullit and Aaron quickly spread out to capture the first images of the devastation as night approached. They climbed to the top of the airport tower – its glass shattered – and took in flattened and devastated villages as far as their eyes could  see.

The airport parking lot was a muddy wasteland of upturned cars, cargo trolleys, aviation equipment and jagged tin roofs. Walking just a few blocks away, we saw bodies on roadsides, covered by tin roofs, sodden bedsheets and pieces of wood. Stunned survivors huddled together on sidewalks near corpses, covering their noses. They asked for food and water but we had none.

One lady said she was given biscuits by friends but would not eat them because she had no water. Beyond the road, she pointed to a clearing that I thought was a barren farm but turned out to be a crowded coastal village, where her house once stood, until a wall of water surged from the sea the morning the typhoon hit and swept away everything.

We  set up a makeshift office outside a low-slung, damaged building, where a few airport controllers and army troops temporarily operated. The building attracted journalists because it was the only structure in the entire airport with a light bulb on. A diesel generator supplied power. Connecting to the power line, the AP team sent out the first images and stories through laptops hooked to satellite phones.

Dinner was a piece of salty cracker topped with a small slice of sardines, courtesy of fellow journalists from another news outfit. Bed for me was a white plastic chair, in which  I tried to sleep. The stench of bodies stacked in a nearby chapel kept me awake all night.

Without car, fuel and information – the city government had virtually collapsed – it was hard to plan the next day’s  coverage. Photographers hiked  several kilometers to  town and hard-hit villages. Coordinating the movement of AP staff became a challenge without functioning telephones, so staffers were basically on their own, incommunicado, once they left our airport base. Many survivors later found their way through the airport’s broken perimeter fences and wandered near our workplaces, later competing for sleeping spaces.

There was no meal at all on the second day. Some air force personnel handed us a couple of  water bottles and later allowed us to use a hand-operated water pump that was dangerously located in the middle of a heap of sharp tin debris and rocks. We washed ourselves there.

The hardest moments were interviewing the survivors, who were  visibly traumatized. Many had missing loved ones, or they were struggling to care for injured or sick relatives and wanted to escape Tacloban but couldn’t. Most of the survivors I interviewed had not had a meal for days. Many waited in long lines outside the airport, hoping to get a flight out on military relief aircraft.

Once, while reading my notes to my colleague Todd Pitman, who was typing them in his laptop for transmission later to the Manila desk. I got overwhelmed and could not go on when I was describing how a father was embracing his kids and wife during a downpour on the tarmac. Huddled close together, I saw that they were all crying quietly. The wife and kids were to board a C-130 shortly and the father decided to stay home to guard their damaged home.

At another time we were interviewing a woman, who was with her children and other relatives. They had waited with the huge crowd for days but could not get seats in one of the outbound military planes amid the bedlam. She worried for her family and begged us for help, tears streaming down her face.