How Does a Paper Personal Journal Survive a Fire?

Michael Calderone catches CNN not disclosing that their reporting purportedly based on “a source familiar with Ambassador Stevens’ thinking” was actually working off his personal journal which they had obtained and not disclosed to the FBI team investigating his killing.

On Wednesday on his show, “Anderson Cooper 360,” Cooper told Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) that “a source familiar with Ambassador Stevens’ thinking told us that in the months before his death he talked about being worried about the never-ending security threats that he was facing in Benghazi and specifically about the rise in Islamic extremism and growing al Qaeda presence.” The source, Cooper continued, “also mentioned [Stevens] being on an al Qaeda hit list.”

But what Cooper didn’t reveal at the time was that CNN’s sourcing was tied, at least partially, to Stevens’ thinking as written in his personal journal.

In one version of their explanation CNN said they “came upon” the journal (Calderone has the transcription).

We came upon the journal through our reporting and notified the family.

In another, they describe it consisting of seven pages in a hard-bound book.

The journal consists of just seven pages of handwriting in a hard-bound book.

Several things stink about this story. First of all, consider that the attack was in Benghazi, not Tripoli, where Stevens was stationed and where he presumably kept his personal affects. So for CNN to have “come upon” it in Benghazi, it presumably would have been on Stevens’ person when he was attacked. If that’s the case, how did it survive the fire [correction, smoke] that killed Stevens?

And consider the role of this picture. CNN included in its spread of pictures of the trashed Consulate. While it clearly shows that some papers did survive, the picture immediately following shows just ashes survived the flames. Also, this image shows the papers having been ransacked; we know that the attackers got sensitive papers. How likely is it that the attackers wouldn’t have taken the Ambassador’s personal journal, even while taking everything else of interest?

That suggests two possibilities. That the journal was on Stevens’ person when he was brought to the hospital, and the person who brought him (or someone in the hospital) gave it to CNN. Or, that the attackers got the journal and one of them got it to CNN (which might explain why CNN’s language here is so sketchy).

There is, of course, one other possibility: that the journal always remained in Tripoli, at the Embassy or the Ambassador’s residence, and one of the staffers shared it with CNN.

In any case, I suspect the reason CNN didn’t reveal they had the journal at first has to do with how they found it. But that may mean they have other relevant information about the attack.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

15 replies
  1. OrionATL says:

    could be someone angry with the white house’s screen about the “riot” that lead to steven’s death,

    or cnn was offered it and paid to get a scoop.

    stealing watches from cadavers? nah, couldn’t be; it’s cnn.

  2. greengiant says:

    Pretty ugly pictures of Stevens being “carried” in Benghazi out there on the web. US media has the good taste not to carry them. So much for your possibility number 1. Note the change in clothing between street scene and the morgue.

  3. sd says:

    There is another option – someone made copies of a select group of pages of Stevens journal and passed them to CNN.

  4. seedeevee says:

    The “fire” did not kill Stevens. The smoke did. You can have a lot of smoke without much fire damage. The contents of a hard bound book could easily survive.

    There can easily be twenty reasons why/if the book survived.

    I see the main point you are trying to make is that CNN acted quite like the ghoul and did not want to admit they have the possessions of a dead man.

  5. emptywheel says:

    @seedeevee: Good point. That said, there WAS a fire at the Consulate. And as the picture above and others show, most papers were turned to ash. So that would suggest the journal stayed with him until … when?

  6. OrionATL says:

    it’s probably just the lighting, but the upper portion of the walls in the foreground suggest flashover. as might papers incinerated where they lay.

  7. undertow says:

    US State Dept. blasts CNN report on Stevens’ diary

    CNN reported on the personal journal of slain American ambassador Christopher Stevens over objections from his family, a State Department spokesman said Saturday.

    The news channel, in a story posted online Saturday, said that it found a journal belonging to Stevens four days after he died in a September 11 attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya. Three other Americans also were killed.

    CNN broke a pledge to the late ambassador’s family that it wouldn’t report on the diary, said State Department spokesman Philippe Reines, a senior adviser to US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

    In a blistering statement, Reines called CNN’s actions “indefensible.”

    more at >>>

  8. P J Evans says:

    I understand his family is ticked off at CNN, also.
    Speculation is that CNN is desperately trying to get more viewers, having lost a lot after they decided that Faux was a good business model.

  9. hidflect says:

    How does a passport from a terrorist survive the 9/11 explosion to land on a sidewalk? The FBI knows. They know everything…

  10. scribe says:

    @OrionATL: I said “routinely”, not “invariably”.

    But, one of the ways used to identify badly burned bodies is by opening their wallets and reading the contents.

  11. Jeff Kaye says:

    As I indicated in a previous comment, Stevens’ views about Islamic radicals in Eastern Libya, including the area around Benghazi, were amply documented in earlier State Department cables as released by Wikileaks. Anyone can look these up. Of course, they won’t address the situation post-Gaddafi, nor will they note the “hit list,” etc., but it’s clear that diplomats, and the US as a whole, were quite aware of the dangers involved way before NATO decided to oust the old regime and create chaos. But chaos is precisely what the US likes in such situations. You can cut such a better deal that way with whomever is going to be your next puppet.

    From their standpoint, that of the MOU that run the State, Stevens was collateral damage. Roll out the memorials, a martyr, if you will, but actually cynically sacrificed to their sick version of realpolitik and imperialism.

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