Kidnapped Journalist's Family Asks for Release

Jackie Spinner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 19, 2006; 11:00 AM

Washington Post staff writer Jackie Spinner , former Baghdad bureau chief who is a friend of kidnapped journalist Jill Carroll , will be online Thursday, Jan. 19, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss Carroll's time as a reporter in Iraq and her captors' threats to kill her unless all female prisoners in military custody are released by Friday.

Video: The Post's Jackie Spinner on abducted journalist Jill Carroll. .

The transcript follows.


Jackie Spinner: Hello everyone. Thanks for stopping by. I will try to answer your questions as best as I can in the hour that we have.


Detroit, Mich.: Almost a year ago, Jill Carroll wrote a prophetic piece for the American Journalism Review entitled "Letter from Baghdad: What a Way to Make a Living", detailing the dangers for journalists in Iraq. What I don't understand is why journalists want to go there. Given the extreme dangers, the inability to go to many places, and restrictions of the military, are journalists really able to give the public a true sense of what life is like for Iraqis and if there are any improvements occurring like the Bush administration would like us to believe? It seems the cost/benefit ratio (danger to self vs. ability to give the public important information) is too high for journalists in Iraq.

Jackie Spinner: Detroit, that is a reasonable question. During my 13 months in Baghdad, I was often asked, particularly from friends and family. Journalists want to go to Iraq for the same reason we go to any conflict--to see for ourselves, to listen, to record the truth. This is often a very difficult thing for non-journalists to understand, how the quest for truth can take us to some of the most dangerous places in the world. But it is in those very places where we are most needed to give voice to the voiceless. The United States went to war with Iraq, whether you disagree or agree with that decision. As a journalist, I felt an obligation to see it through, to write about what happened and what is happening even if it is dangerous. That said, most journalists in Iraq take calculated risks. Jill Carroll didn't walk out of her protected compound in blue jeans and a T-shirt. We do everything we can to keep ourselves alive and to protect the brave Iraqis who help get the story.


Seattle, Wash.: I've been following Jill's situation as much as possible - I feel terrible for her, for her family and friends and hope she comes home safely.

Do reporters in Baghdad think much about what they would or should do if kidnapped? Did you prepare yourself mentally for that possibility? And couldn't Jill have taken more/better precautions? or was her light security a function of freelance status?

Jackie Spinner: My heart, too, goes out to her family. I shudder to imagine my own mother having to make the plea for my life that Jill's mother made this morning. Seeing someone you love, a friend, daughter or sister in that situation just rips at your soul. To answer your question, reporters in Baghdad do think about the potential for being kidnapped. We do prepare mentally for the possibility. It consumes you and as such you take great precautions to avoid being kidnapped. One of the reasons that Jill traveled as she did was because she wanted to stay off the radar screen. Journalists, even those of us who work for major media organizations, are divided or the best way to travel through Baghdad. Sometimes a bullet-proof car is more obvious. A two-car convoy may attract more attention. So it is really up to the individual reporter and whatever security advice that reporter is being given.


Washington, D.C.: Do you think that Jill Carroll's knowledge of Arabic could be helpful in this situation? Also is anything known about the group that is claiming this? It seems that little is known about them.

Jackie Spinner: I have to believe that it is helpful. Jill would be able to understand and communicate with her captors, to humanize herself. We know very little about the group, which calls itself the "Revenge Brigade." The insurgency is Iraq is very fractured and splintered, which is one of the reasons it has been very effective. Often, kidnappers target people for money, hoping to sell them to the highest bidder. I don't know what the reason was for Jill's kidnapping.


Saddle River, N.J.: What do you think of her decision to prearrange an interview in a Sunni section of town? What light can you shed on the circumstances of her kidnapping, and the likely hood of her survival? Thanks.

Jackie Spinner: The fact that Jill was reaching out to an influential Sunni political leader shows what kind of reporter she is. She was obviously interested in hearing what he had to say, to listening. I am not in a position to second-guess how Jill arranged the interview. In my estimation, she is not a risk-taker. She is a careful reporter.


Bethesda, Md.: I was shocked last night when you said on PBS "News Hour" that you relied on Iraqi stringers for your articles on Iraq. Shouldn't that fact be more prominently displayed in your articles?

Jackie Spinner: The Iraqi reporters and stringers who work for us are always credited for their contributions except in limited cases when they have asked their names not be used for security reasons. You see their bylines and taglines on the stories in which they have helped cover the news. I don't pass off their reporting as my own. This is no different than two reporters in the United States teaming up for a story and sharing a byline. And if I recall, I said that we use Iraqi stringers and correspondents to go places where it might be dangerous not only for us as Western correspondents but where it might be dangerous for them to be seen with a Western reporter. I got out plenty myself.


Washington, D.C.: Jackie, I am a former correspondent for a large news organization. I spent about five years overseas in the '90s, in the Balkans and in the Middle East. I have my share of war stories, but the hazards of reporting from Iraq seem to be at an entirely different order of magnitude. I have enormous respect for those risking their lives every day to bring the story back home to readers, viewers and listeners. I am worried that, in this environment, fewer freelancers may be willing to take the risk, and fewer news organizations will be willing to assume the risk (and expense). And as a result, news consumers will be getting more and more information from official briefings. (In Vietnam, they weren't called the Five O'Clock Follies for nothing.)

Jackie Spinner: Iraq is probably the most dangerous environments the press has ever known, not to take anything away from reporters who have been in other dangerous, hostile environments--and have lost their lives in them. The threats against journalists in Iraq have definitely forced news organizations to think carefully about the risks their employees are undertaking. It is very, very expensive to operate in Iraq. The security costs are enormous and that does mean smaller news organizations may not be able to afford to stay in Iraq. We've seen a lot pull out in the past year. But as long as news organizations believe that they can mitigate enough of the risks, as long as individual journalists believe that they can mitigate those risks, reporters will remain in Iraq. I know that the Washington considers the safety and security of its reporters and Iraqi staff to be the highest priority. When I left for Iraq, I was advised from the highest levels at the newspaper that "no story is worth your life." I never felt pressured to take an "unnecessary" risk just to keep up with the competition.


Montague, Calif.: Why is this situation, as sad as it is, any different than any of the other contract people being taken hostage in Iraq, in your opinion? The U.S. has historically refused to negotiate with terrorists, so why would they now?

Jackie Spinner: It is not different. I have no information that the United States is negotiating with the kidnappers or that anyone has had contact with them. I have seen the reports that the commission overseeing Iraqi detainees has recommended the release of six of eight women. The Iraqi government has said the decision is unrelated to the demand by Jill's kidnappers that the detained women be released or they will execute her. I have written stories about this commission and know a fair bit about how it works. It meets routinely to review cases of detained Iraqis, to determine if they should be released or sent to trial.


Washington, D.C.: Is there any particular reason that I am seeing so many journalists in Iraq who are women and by and large young? Or is that not the case?

Jackie Spinner: I don't have statistics but feel fairly confident in saying that the press pool in Iraq is not dominated by young women. That said, as a female reporter in Iraq, I did feel like I could disguise myself better than some of my male colleagues. In a scarf and abaya, with the right shoes, purse and even make-up, I could blend in fairly well. Whenever someone said to me, "Wow, you look really Iraqi," I took that as a compliment, and it made me feel more secure.


Charleroi, Pa.: Saying my prayers for Jill her captors, you and all journalists in Iraq. Whatever your motivation to report the news from Iraq is to our benefit...will continue to pray for your safety and all who are in Iraq for peace.

Jackie Spinner: Thanks to all of you who have voiced you support and concern for Jill. Please add her family to your prayer lists.


Falls Church, Va.: Is anything known about the eight female Iraqi prisoners whose release is demanded by the kidnappers?

Jackie Spinner: We don't know the specifics at this point. I can speculate that if the commission reviewing their cases is the one with joint participation by Iraqis and Americans than these are women being held as U.S. security detainees. But I don't know that for sure. Keep in mind that the Iraqi government holds prisoners separately.


Burlington, Vt.: I really appreciate the courage and dedication of reporters like you and Jill Carroll and what you are doing in Iraq. I was also touched by the remembrance of Carroll's Iraqi translator by an Iraqi woman.

Baghdad Burning

I think an article about him may humanize Iraqis and the daily tragedies they suffer for many Americans.

Jackie Spinner: Burlington, thank you for reminding us that Jill's translator lost his life when she was kidnapped. He was a man committed to helping her tell the truth, and it cost him his life. If Jill witnessed this, it would have pained her as much as her own kidnapping. I can assure you of that. He was her lifeline into the adopted country she grew to love.


Washington, D.C.: Last night on the News Hour you said that when you deemed your safety to be at issue you would send your Iraqi translator to cover a story and then write a piece based on what you were told. Is that a common practice and are you confident the information you get from your translator is accurate.

Jackie Spinner: To clarify, I said that we used our Iraqi reporters to report in areas where it was not only unsafe for an American but also for the Iraqi to be seen with an American. The Post values both lives equally. This is not an uncommon practice unique to the Washington Post. We do it only when someone's life is a great risk. Obviously, as a reporter, I want to see the story for myself. In those instances when I cannot, this is the best alternative. I would point out that our Iraqi correspondents are trained as Washington Post correspondents, using our ethics and standards to get the news. It is not unlike how we often cover major events here in Washington, using a team of Post reporters. At the end of the day, only one person can sit at the keyboard.


Washington, D.C.: I'm feel horrible for Jill's family. Do you believe her captors have committed this kidnapping for attention or retribution? How much leverage can this group gain?

I'm elated that you survived the attempt on you during your stay in Iraq. I admire your courage and your work.

Jackie Spinner: D.C. we just don't know the reason at this point. American journalists are targets. In Iraq, we have no immunity. We are considered infidels by some in the insurgency, part of the "occupation" and not independent observers. And in some respects, the insurgents must feel as if they don't need us to "tell their side." The Internet has provided a powerful outlet in getting their message out.


Arlington, Va.: Do you have any information on how her abductors knew she would be there at that time? Is it related to the fact that she was going to interview a prominent politician?

Jackie Spinner: I don't have that information. I am trying to limit my discussion to Jill's reporting in Iraq and what it is like to be a reporter in Iraq. I wouldn't want to do anything to jeopardize her freedom.


Washington, D.C.: As former neighbor of the Carroll family, I was shocked to see Jill's picture in the paper last week. That being said, what is her family doing right now? Are they just sitting and waiting to hear something, are government officials frequently updating them on things that they are hearing, or is most of their information coming from media sources?

Jackie Spinner: Jill's family have issued statements calling for her release, and her mother appeared on CNN this morning to make a plea for her daughter. The transcript of that interview is available on I will ask my .com colleagues to provide a link.

_______________________ Statement by Mother of Kidnapped Reporter


Washington, D.C.: What is the Monitor's role in this now? My understanding is that the Monitor did not give her budget for security like the other paper's had. She had no guards, no flak jacket, no security team etc. The impression is that the Monitor didn't keep their own staff their because it was expensive, but they accept the work of freelancers. What do you think of this practice?

Jackie Spinner: My understanding is that the Monitor is doing everything it can to secure her release. Everything I've heard from her colleagues and editors since her kidnapping suggests they consider Jill part of the Monitor family.


Philadelphia, Pa.: Do you think the mother's plea and noting how understanding and fair her daughter has been might fall upon sympathetic ears amongst her kidnappers? Or, are kidnappers becoming more concerned with the financial gains that they are beyond reasoning, in your best estimate and opinion?

Jackie Spinner: Philly, I don't know the answer to that. I can only hope that the message gets to them. I feel certain that the kidnappers are following the coverage. After all, why release a video of Jill with a demand if you don't want publicity? Jill's friends and colleagues are not just pitching a campaign for her release in pointing out her fairness in reporting. We are speaking the truth. This is a woman concerned in reporting what was happening in Iraq from multiple perspectives. As Jill's mother said this morning, she is not an enemy of Iraq. Jill loves the country and cares deeply about what is happening there. She is there at great sacrifice without the permanent backing of a major news organization. That says a lot.


Cherry Hill, N.J.: Now that you're back from Iraq, what kinds of stories will you be doing for The Washington Post?

Jackie Spinner: That's a good question. I'll let you know when I figure it out. I'm happy to take suggestions! For me, the Iraq story is still one of the most engaging in the newsroom. I will remained involved in it for at least a few months doing some special projects.


Jackie Spinner: I am afraid that we are out of time. Thank you all for your interest and hopes that Jill will be freed soon.


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