CBS newsman Bob Simon and his three-man crew are being held in Baghdad by the Iraqi military and their fate will be decided by President Saddam Hussein, CBS officials said yesterday.
Network officials said they had confirmed an earlier report from Baghdad by CNN's Peter Arnett, who said Simon and his colleagues are being held near the former residence of U.S. Embassy Marine guards and being fed three meals a day. The four men disappeared 3 1/2 weeks ago near Saudi Arabia's border with Iraq.
"This is the first solid indication that they are alive and apparently in good health and we are very grateful to hear that news," CBS Vice President Joe Peyronnin said.
The feelings of relief that swept CBS offices were tempered by an ominous part of Arnett's report: that Saddam will personally determine whether the four journalists are innocent, prisoners of war or "possible spies." An Iranian-born journalist, Farzad Bazoft, was hanged in Baghdad last year after being found guilty of spying while on assignment for a British newspaper.
"We are doing all we can to make clear to Iraq that they are not prisoners of war, that they are not spies," Peyronnin said. "I am concerned that Saddam Hussein understand that these four men are journalists and that they are noncombatants and that he make the decision to release them. We are appealing to him to release them."
Arnett said "reliable sources" told him that three of the CBS staffers were wearing military uniforms when they were picked up near the border by an Iraqi military jeep patrol. They reportedly explained that they were trying to pass by Saudi checkpoints "in the guise of American soldiers," according to Arnett. He said the Iraqi intelligence service is investigating the case.
Arnett said his report had been carefully reviewed by Iraqi censors. His Iraqi sources apparently took pains to emphasize that the journalists are being held in "fairly comfortable" conditions in an office building, eating the same food as their captors and being taken to shelters during allied bombing raids.
Simon, 49, is a 24-year CBS veteran who has covered conflicts in Vietnam, Lebanon, China, Romania and Central America. Openly critical of the Defense Department's restrictions on American reporters in Saudi Arabia, Simon had set off in a four-wheel-drive land cruiser near the Iraqi border with producer Peter Bluff, cameraman Roberto Alvarez and sound man Juan Caldera. They were last seen Jan. 18. Their car was later found, out of gas, along with $6,000 in cash and video equipment.
Simon ended his last report by saying, "Bob Simon, CBS News, in the no man's land between Saudi Arabia and Kuwait."
"He's damn lucky, if he's alive, that word got through to Baghdad," said John Wallach, foreign editor of Hearst Newspapers and a longtime friend. "He was in a remote region and it probably took a fair amount of explaining who he was and what he was doing there.
"He did something which might have been foolhardy, but it's in the tradition we all aspire to," Wallach said. He said Simon had tried to break away from the "pack journalism and spoon-feeding" that characterizes most reporting in the Persian Gulf.
Simon's wife, Francoise, had written to Saddam, appealing for information on Simon's whereabouts. Some 3,000 journalists also signed letters and petitions on the crew's behalf.
"Until today, we had gotten two answers from the Iraqis -- they didn't know anything and they felt we should be looking in Saudi Arabia," CBS News Vice President Don DeCesare said from Amman, Jordan, where he has been seeking the crew's release. "It's a little perplexing." But DeCesare said it is "not terribly surprising" that the men would be "questioned closely" given the circumstances of their capture.
One CBS official said colleagues wondered whether Simon was still alive, although "nobody would say things like that out loud. It was in the back of everyone's mind as we tried to go about our work." CBS spokesman Tom Goodman said that "there were enough reports out there to give us some comfort, second-, third- and fourth-hand reports of sightings."
Some Simon friends preferred to look on the bright side. "He's going to have a hell of a story when he comes out," Wallach said.