When Philip Geyelin and Nat Hentoff pillory NBC News for our interview with terrorist leader Mohammed Abu Abbas, attention should be paid. Except that their highly charged rhetoric masks an uncharacteristic absence of reason and common sense.
Both columnists inveighed against NBC for agreeing not to reveal the location of the Abu Abbas interview. According to Geyelin [op-ed, May 19], "The most newsworthy thing abut him was where he was. Yet NBC agreed to keep that news a secret as a condition for getting the interview." As Tom Brokaw said on "NBC Nightly News," we did make that agreement, reluctantly, in the conviction that the opportunity to get answers from the alleged mastermind of the Achille Lauro hijacking was worth not revealing precisely where the interview took place.
Agreeing not to reveal the location of an interview is hardly without precedent when the news and information that will be produced are sufficiently important. Newspaper as well as television reporters have accepted such arrangements in the past in order to interview Polish Solidarity leaders, Afghanistan freedom fighters, contra rebels, Soviet dissidents, IRA leaders and even those in the federal protection program. In addition, the fact is that such people as Abu Abbas have no permanent home. Where he was interviewed on a particular day is hardly a key element.
Some have complained that NBC News did not help arrest fugitive terrorist Abu Abbas when he was "within the grasp" of our correspondent. As Geyelin knows, NBC is neither a national intelligence service nor a law enforcement agency. We do not have the authority or the ability to arrest fugitives.
Another major objection to our interview of Abu Abbas was that by putting him on the air we gave him status and a platform. The fact is that Abu Abbas was an important figure before the interview, important enough for the Italian government, at great risk to its own future, to intervene in his capture by American forces. It is absurd to think that Abbas' recent appearance on American television is what has given him his clout. And if our critics fear that the American public is so gullible as to fall for Abbas' propaganda under questioning by our correspondent, either they have little faith in the intelligence of the American people or they have undue faith in the power of Abbas' arguments.
Finally, Hentoff op-ed, May 17 , who should know better, asked: what is the difference between putting fugitive terrorist leader Abu Abbas on our news broadcast and putting on a common criminal? That may be a handy rhetorical device, but it is an irrelevant question. We do not report interviews with common criminals on network news unless they have information of importance for our audience to know and understand. This alleged criminal is an international terrorist, the leader of a movement that is prepared to do our people and our leaders great harm. We should know as much as we can about who he is, what he is up to and why.
Geyelin unwittingly stated our case very well: "Abbas, together with the four captured hijackers, was on board a Tunis-bound Egyptian airliner when it was intercepted by U.S. Navy planes and forced to land in Italy. But the Italians let Abbas go. His precise role in the hijacking at that time was not clear." Now we have his own confession about his precise role. And his version can be checked out against what government officials and others have learned from other sources.