To Print or Not to Print? The US Hunt for Pol Pot Raised Ethical Issues for the Press

On April 9, The New York Times ran a page-one story revealing US President Bill Clinton’s written order that the State, Justice and Defense departments “devise plans” for the capture of Pol Pot. The Times quoted unnamed administration officials who said the Thai government was willing to seize Pol Pot just across their border as long as the US would whisk him out of their county. The story was publicized in Cam­bodia, doubtless reaching the mountainous hinterland where Pol Pot and the remaining Khmer Rouge fighters were hiding.

One detail the article didn’t mention was that US National Security Adviser Samuel Berg­er had asked the Times not to publish the story, warning that it might endanger the plan to capture Pol Pot.

Six days after the piece ran, Pol Pot was dead. The Khmer Rouge said he’d had a heart attack. He was 71 and ailing. But the Khmer Rouge quickly cremated him without allowing an autopsy, adding to the speculation that they had murdered him to prevent his capture and possible testimony about who did what in the killing fields. What exactly happened may never be known. But was Berger on solid ground in asking the Times not to publish? Was the Times right to override his concerns?

Berger called the paper’s Washington bureau, then its New York office, on April 8, the night before the story was set to run.

An­other senior US official close to the case says the administration felt that exposing the plan to put Pol Pot on trial would destroy it: “Our fears were that individuals and governments that would have otherwise been supportive would be scared away. And that the story would put people on notice who had an interest in thwarting the apprehension of Pol Pot.”

Martin Baron, associate managing editor, took Berger’s second call and consulted Adam Clymer, second in command at the Washington bureau, as well as foreign editor Andrew Rosenthal and managing editor Bill Keller in New York. Keller delivered the go-ahead.

“We gave this careful consideration,” says Rosenthal. “There are no hard-and-fast rules, but generally you’re much more likely to withhold a story if there’s a national security argument. This wasn’t a security argument.”

How much weight to give a high-level government request to hold back or kill a story is always a tricky question. Journalists tend to resist government interference.

To Clymer, the article’s editor, the story had significant news value. A number of government departments were in­volved in trying to set up the capture, Clymer says, “and the only ones not to know about it were the American people. We didn’t know what impact the story would have. But we’re not in charge of keeping the administration’s secrets.”

But the senior administration official interviewed for this article argues that the Times ought to have weighed the story’s impact. The article was “irresponsible,” he charges, “be­cause what it provided in terms of information was far outweighed by the damage it did to efforts to bring the perpetrator of one of this cent­ury’s most horrific crimes to justice.” He adds: “Imagine that these were the 1940s, and the US government was trying to get its hands on Hitler.”

The mere possibility that the story may have contributed to the outcome makes it a case study. Diane Orent­licher, director of the War Crimes Research Office at American Uni­versity, says she is not in a position to assess the Times story.

But, she adds, “Let’s suppose a journalist has advance knowledge of an operation to arrest a world-class criminal and has good reason to believe that publishing could thwart the capture of that suspect….I imagine she would face a vexing dilemma.”

Cambodia experts say the report might have inspired Khmer Rouge leaders to ensure no arrest would occur. At the same time, most journalists interviewed for this article argue that mere speculation that the story could abort the capture didn’t justify killing it.

John Dinges, the former editorial director for National Public Radio now teaching at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, contends that the administration’s efforts did not seem to have progressed to a point that would give him pause about running the piece. There were too many imponderables: “Would Thailand really agree to this? Would the Thai military carry it out? Would Pol Pot be there like a sitting duck?”

Sydney Schanberg, the former Times re­porter whose coverage of the Khmer Rouge takeover earned a Pulitzer in 1976, agrees: “Unless I hear that they’re training a special force at Fort Bragg to capture Pol Pot or that they’re guiding the Thai government with satellite photos and military support, it’s airy-fairy, and it doesn’t have the reality necessary to withhold a story.”

Yet the administration’s anger at the Times sheds light on just how sensitive and difficult it is to bring a genocide case to trial, and why press coverage can complicate those efforts.

As of now, the US has reservations about establishing an independent court with universal jurisdiction over war crimes because Washington fears that US military people abroad might be subjected to this outside authority. Setting up courts on an ad hoc basis, as was done in the cases of the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, requires the consent of the UN Security Council—thus turning efforts to prosecute genocide into diplomatic choreography, which publicity can throw into chaos.

In this case, the chor­eography was particularly complicated: the government of Chi­na—a Security Council member and a past Pol Pot ally—has so far opposed establishing a Khmer Rouge trib­unal. The Thai military, too, has past ties to the Khmer Rouge that it presumably doesn’t want explored. After the Times story publicized what the senior administration official complains were “sensitive issues of very sensitive diplomatic discussions,” the Thai government de­nied ever having of­fered to capture Pol Pot.

The lack of a controlling legal authority—such as a permanent war crimes tribunal—may also have been a factor in the editorial decision. Rosenthal allows that the Times has held off on a story when asked by a law-enforcement organization like the Federal Bureau of Investigation not to jeopardize an operation. However, he argues that this case was “no law-enforcement operation, but a political and diplomatic operation.”

Yet the issue is not that clear-cut when the legal authority is in the process of being set up. The Times story said Clinton had asked the US Justice Department to “review the legal authority” for the US to detain Pol Pot. This is a gray area in international law, says Stefanie Grant, program director of the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights: “It’s not clear that it’s not law enforcement.”

Orentlicher at the War Crimes Research Office says: “As a human rights advocate I may be sorry that the plans to arrest Pol Pot became public. But I also understand the journalistic imperative to publish. In the larger picture, press coverage has created a momentum that may help bring other Khmer Rouge leaders to trial.”

The opportunity to prosecute the man who has been likened to Hitler and Stalin, however, has slipped away for good.


This article first appeared in the current Columbia Journalism Review, where the author was an assistant editor when he wrote it.

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