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Independent Audit Concludes NPR Not At Fault In Death Of Two Of Its Own

NPR photojournalist David Gilkey and NPR Afghan interpreter Zabihullah Tamanna.
Monika Evstatieva
NPR photojournalist David Gilkey and NPR Afghan interpreter Zabihullah Tamanna.

In June 2016, David Gilkey, an NPR photojournalist, and Zabihullah Tamanna, NPR's Afghan interpreter and also a journalist, were killed while on assignment for NPR in Afghanistan. Their deaths in the field — when their armored Humvee, driven by a Afghan National Army soldier, was hit by heavy weapons fire — marked a sad first for NPR in its more than 45 years on the air. NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman and producer Monika Evstatieva were also part of that day's team, traveling in a separate Humvee, and were not injured.

Amid much anguish and, it should be said, some anger and questions inside and outside the newsroom as to whether its decisions put the journalists in harm's way, NPR took the appropriate step of engaging two outsiders, journalist Andrew Alexander, a former Washington Post ombudsman, and First Amendment lawyer David J. Bodney, to do an independent operational assessment of the Afghanistan assignment "to learn what went right, what went wrong and what more can be done to promote the safety and security of NPR journalists on future assignments in hostile environments." That quote comes from the final report, dated Jan. 17, 2017, which was made available to me in full on a confidential basis late last week.

The 16-page report is not going to be released publicly, although, in an admirable display of internal transparency, all NPR employees as of today will be able to review it. I am comfortable with the decision not to release the full report; much of it deals with information about security protocols designed to protect NPR staff members who travel on risky assignments, and those details should rightly remain confidential. It also touches on some of the newsroom questions surrounding the assignment and a couple of instances where protocol was not followed. (NPR also shared the report already with Gilkey's family and with his friend, photographer Chip Somodevilla, because he is mentioned in it; NPR also plans to share the findings with Tamanna's family.)

I was given freedom to write about the report as I see fit, with no restrictions other than those I place on myself. I am avoiding any discussion of security protocol and most details related to personnel. Honoring an embargo, I have not discussed the findings with anyone in the newsroom other than Michael Oreskes, NPR's senior vice president of news and editorial director. I also discussed the report with Bodney.

To address the most pressing question first, the report's authors state upfront that they "found no causal link between NPR's existing security protocols" and the deaths of Gilkey and Tamanna. They also conclude that "we may never know the precise cause" of their deaths, although a more detailed picture could emerge if and when Defense Department and FBI reports into what happened become available. But those reports are unlikely to change the report's conclusions, Bodney told me, because presumably they "would be focused more on the precise cause of deaths than on NPR's security protocols or actions taken before the ambush."

A couple of overall points are important to note. The team members had lots of war-reporting experience among them, including in Afghanistan. And NPR about five years ago beefed up its overseas security procedures, embarking "on a comprehensive effort to identify vulnerabilities and adopt measures to protect correspondents covering war and other risky assignments abroad," as Alexander and Bodney write. So the basics were all in place.

Much of the report is a detailed recap of the assignment, from when it was conceived to the aftermath of the ambush. Alexander and Bodney wrote that they faced no restrictions in their investigation, interviewed more than 35 people, most of them NPR employees, and reviewed relevant emails, text messages, calendar entries, recordings from the field, memoranda, photographs and other documents.

What comes through most clearly is a sense of the inherent contradictions in these assignments, which necessarily carry risks about which all participants are well aware. Many details and security precautions are worked out in advance, but in the end, crucial decisions are often made on the ground, at the last minute, and based on imperfect information. Some "gut" calls must be made. In this case it was a decision by the team to travel with the Afghan National Army on the road in Helmand Province, in territory that the Afghan forces insisted they controlled.

The report details the team's deliberations on whether to make the Humvee drive, which was envisioned as the last outing of the three-week reporting trip. Knowing what we do now, it makes for painful reading, since one team member expressed reservations about taking the ride. But despite turning up those reservations, the report did not conclude that the go-ahead decision was cavalier, or made under pressure from the newsroom. In fact, editors back in Washington were unaware of that trip until after the ambush. According to the report, Gilkey and Bowman in particular felt strongly that they needed to see for themselves whether the Afghan Army controlled the territory. That, of course, is what good reporters do.

The report ends with 12 "observations and recommendations." The authors write that while they "found no causal link between the absence of any or all of these measures and the deaths of Gilkey and Tamanna, it is possible that their implementation could operate to reduce the risks of reporting in war and other hostile environments in years to come." The authors write that many of the proposals were "suggested or endorsed by the roughly three dozen people, mostly experienced NPR journalists" to whom they spoke for the report.

One recommendation that jumped out at me was labeled "Editorial Support for Journalists in the Field." Quoting from the report:

"Experience can be a dangerous thing. Management can start to assume that experienced correspondents know what they're doing and don't need support. But they do, especially when they are on the ground in hostile terrain. NPR also should more vigorously enforce the existing requirement that its journalists report in daily to an editor or supervisor, and should hold accountable those who fail to do so. NPR should more assertively stress the importance of consensus before its journalists move into a potentially dangerous situation. Editors tend to rely on the situational awareness of correspondents in the field, especially good and experienced ones. But journalists, even seasoned ones, can be queried by an editor about the risks and rewards of their contemplated movements in ways that may cause them to re-think their plans."

As noted, that conversation did not happen last June, according to the report. Would it have changed the decision to go out on that convoy? That is probably unlikely, given the strong convictions of team members deeply respected in the newsroom, but it's also unknowable.

A number of the other recommendations involve the way NPR is organized and how it plans for such high-risk assignments. The authors suggest that NPR tighten the editing structure so one editor is clearly in charge; require editors to attend pre-departure security briefings and take hostile environment training that reporters and producers already take part in; expand the number of reporters and producers covered by hostile environment training; and adopt a protocol limiting the use of social media in hostile environments. (I was surprised the latter protocol is not already in place.)

Pentagon reporter Bowman currently reports to the National Desk, due to what the authors call "an historical anomaly," and therefore that desk oversees his trips, including the one last year. So another recommendation is to move all oversight for high-risk overseas assignments to the International Desk, where the bulk of expertise in such situations lies.

Oreskes endorsed that recommendation, which he told me he considered the most important one in the report. NPR, he said, should "put our most expert news leaders in charge of these trips at all times." The nature of NPR, he said, is that "there is a lot of great work that is done in a de-centralized way," but going forward, "We're going to move management of trips like this to the International Desk."

In a note going out to the staff this morning, Oreskes wrote that the review was commissioned to "make sure we have learned everything we can from their deaths so we can carry on their work of covering a dangerous and unpredictable world as safely as possible."

He outlined what he said were key points, including the conclusion that "overall NPR's safety protocols compare favorably with those followed by" peer organizations (including the Associated Press, The New York Times and The Washington Post). He said he was accepting and would implement all 12 of the specific recommendations for strengthening the current protocols, and added:"Although the reviewers offered recommendations, they stressed that they found no reason to believe that implementing them sooner would have prevented David's and Zabi's deaths."

Oreskes said he is also appointing a working group of colleagues "to assure we are taking every step we can to safeguard our journalists in the field, domestically and internationally, and that we are looking after them upon their return," and said he planned to share the lessons learned with other national news organizations.

The recommendations are smart and I hope NPR will indeed move quickly to implement them. Alexander and Bodney wrote that they hoped their independent review "pays tribute to the ultimate sacrifices of Gilkey and Tamanna in pursuit of truth on the battlefield, and respects all those individuals at NPR and beyond who mourn their loss." NPR would honor them by adopting these measures as additional protection for future NPR reporting trips to hostile environments.

These conclusions about the report and NPR's response to it are my own. If I subsequently hear from others who were closer to the situation and have different takeaways that seem important, I'll update this column.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Elizabeth Jensen
Elizabeth Jensen was appointed as NPR's Public Editor in January 2015. In this role, she serves as the public's representative to NPR, responsible for bringing transparency to matters of journalism and journalism ethics. The Public Editor receives tens of thousands of listener inquiries annually and responds to significant queries, comments and criticisms.