Michael Yon, a former Special Forces member who is now a blogger and self-styled independent reporter, is angry at the New York Times for its detailed reporting on the plight of Paul and Rachel Chandler, the British couple currently held hostage by pirates in Somalia. Yon thinks their accounts are endangering the pair, and as a result, took to his Twitter page to accuse the paper of an unrelated wrongdoing: lying about paying bribes to the Taliban to secure the release of kidnapped journalist David Rohde. Rohde was imprisoned for seven months in Afghanistan, and recently wrapped up a lengthy series he wrote for the paper explaining what happened there. The Times has acknowledged that small bribes were paid to guards so that they would look the other way while Rohde escaped. But executive editor Bill Keller denied that any large sums of money exchanged hands — even though they were prepared to pay $2 million to the Taliban to secure his release.
Yon tweeted yesterday that this was untrue. "I have been told by very close sources that ex-CIA officers helped pay off release for Rohde. I knew this while it was ongoing," he wrote. "Am told by good sources Rohde is good guy, but still NYT cannot ask for discretion when they don’t use it. Numerous very well placed sources have told me New York Times/associates paid millions to get Rohde release."
We contacted the Times this morning about this allegation of lying and have yet to hear back. Of course, there is a lot of gray area — outside forces, from the CIA to foreign countries, could have paid on behalf of the paper in order to preserve their deniability. Also, the Twitter rant of an independent writer who admits that he is furious is dubious at best. But the Times has received flak for their handling of this case, and for Rohde's presence in that part of Afghanistan in the first place. They may have to address this accusation, no matter how small-time the accuser, because the truth of this matter will have repercussions in both the craft of wartime journalism and the handling of international kidnapping incidents.
The Times multi-part series: "Held by the Taliban" [NYT]
Related: Our own reporting on David Rohde's kidnapping and escape.
Did The NYT Secretly Pay Millions To Get David Rohde Released? [Mediaite]
Update: Rohde addresses this accusation in the Times, saying: "As I stated in the series on our captivity, no ransom was paid in our case and no one, including our guards, helped us escape. I would never have written — and the newspaper would never have published — a five-part-series based on a lie." Yon himself clarified his point in an e-mail to Politico. "In NYT's public response they freely admitted giving money to Taliban. In fact their words closely parallel information I got before Rohde returned from captivity. That money was given to Taliban has just been freely admitted. Again, this was coming to me while he was in captivity. This tends to strongly corroborate both what NYT wrote, and what my sources have conveyed. The information that I got was that the sums were substantial and in fact months before Rohde returned a very large sum was paid and came to naught, and other attempts failed. NYT's own words tend to corroborate this." Meanwhile, some wording in this post has been changed to better reflect Yon's role as an independent writer.