Oral Histories

Wolf Blitzer

Interview Segments on Topic: Ethical Decisionmaking

Wolf Blitzer Biography

Wolf Blitzer is CNN’s lead political anchor and the anchor of The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer, CNN’s political news program that provides up-to-the minute coverage of the day’s events.  During the 2008 presidential election, Blitzer spearheaded CNN’s Peabody Award-winning coverage of the presidential primary debates and campaigns. He also anchored coverage surrounding all of the major political events, including both conventions, Election Night and the full day of President Barack Obama’s inauguration.

In addition to politics, Blitzer is also known for his in-depth reporting on international news. In December 2010, he was granted rare access to travel to North Korea with former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson as the world watched tensions mount between North and South Korea.

Blitzer reported from Israel in the midst of the war between that country and Hezbollah during the summer of 2006. In 2005, he was the only American news anchor to cover the Dubai Ports World story on the ground in the United Arab Emirates. He also traveled to the Middle East that year to report on the second anniversary of the war in Iraq. In 2003, Blitzer reported on the Iraq war from the Persian Gulf region.

Blitzer began his career in 1972 with the Reuters News Agency in Tel Aviv. Shortly thereafter, he became a Washington, D.C., correspondent for the Jerusalem Post. After more than 15 years of reporting from the nation’s capital, Blitzer joined CNN in 1990 as the network’s military-affairs correspondent at the Pentagon. He served as CNN’s senior White House correspondent covering President Bill Clinton from his election in November 1992 until 1999.

Throughout his career, Blitzer has interviewed some of history’s most notable figures, including former Presidents George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, Ronald Regan, Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford. Blitzer has also interviewed many foreign leaders— the Dalai Lama, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, former South African President Nelson Mandela, among them.

Among the numerous honors he has received for his reporting, Blitzer is the recipient of an Emmy Award from The National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences for his 1996 coverage of the Oklahoma City bombing and a Golden CableACE from the National Academy of Cable Programming for his and CNN’s coverage of the Persian Gulf War. He anchored CNN’s Emmy-award winning live coverage of the 2006 Election Day. He was also among the teams awarded a George Foster Peabody award for Hurricane Katrina coverage; an Alfred I. duPont Award for coverage of the tsunami disaster in Southeast Asia; and an Edward R. Murrow Award for CNN’s coverage of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in 2001. He is the recipient of the 2004 Journalist Pillar of Justice Award from the Respect for Law Alliance and the 2003 Daniel Pearl Award from the Chicago Press Veterans Association.

Blitzer is the author of two books, Between Washington and Jerusalem:  A Reporter’s Notebook (Oxford University Press, 1985) and Territory of Lies (Harper and Row, 1989). The latter was cited by The New York Times Book Review as one of the most notable books of 1989. He also has written articles for numerous publications, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times.

Transcript

INTERVIEWER:  Can you remember any specific ones or specific instances where a story was being covered and it was talked about; here’s a delicate matter and this is why it’s a delicate matter?

BLITZER:  Early on, it was June 1973 and I was then working out of the Tel Aviv Bureau of the Reuters News Agency and the Chancellor of West Germany, Willy Brandt, was making the first visit to Israel by a German leader since the Holocaust—since the end of World War II so it was a huge story.  Will Brandt comes to Israel, first German Chancellor to visit the Jewish State after WWII, I was the low man in the Tel Aviv Bureau, the low person.  He was to be there for almost a week and everybody was divided who would cover his address before the Knesset, Israel’s parliament.  He would cover his meetings with Golda Mier, the Prime Minister, he would cover you know, all sorts of other things.  He was going to go visit Masada, this mountaintop, Roman fortress from 2000 years in the desert.  A lot of German college students had come in the 60’s and 70’s on archeological digs and he was going to go visit the Masada -- Jewish Zealots 2000 years ago, instead of giving up to the Romans, they committed suicide basically; fought and died.  It’s a very historic event, so Reuters said, you go and cover this.  So I remember driving down from Tel Aviv and we got there very early, it was June so it was already hot and he was going to be landing, I think at the top of Masada around 8:00 in the morning, so I was there by 6.  We went all the way to the top on these cable cars and as he was coming down in his helicopter to land on a flat area, a gust of wind—all of a sudden, out of the blue this happens In the desert sometimes, appeared out of nowhere and began lifting and jolting his helicopter, it was an Israeli military helicopter.  And as it was maybe 20 feet off the ground, you could see it was not in a good position.  There were about 70 or 80 journalists who were there covering it, and we were behind a little barrier but you know, here I was a young kid and I’m saying to myself oh my God, the chancellor of Germany, the foreign minister of Germany, the Israeli leadership, they’re in this helicopter and it looks like—it touches down and the wind begins to push it and it’s about to go over the precipice.  Go over the side and then there’s like a 2000 foot drop to the bottom of this mountain and I said to myself wow.  Miraculously, amazingly, there was this 3 foot wall right at the edge and the wheels of the helicopter caught that wall and the helicopter stopped and didn’t go over—even when the wheels caught it, we thought the wind was still going to blow it over and all these people would die.  It stopped, and the next thing I knew, Yigael Yadin who is Israel’s foremost archaeologist at the time, you know former chief of staff of the Israeli army, deputy Prime Minister.  He pushes Willy Brandt, the Foreign Minister of Germany, and they all get out and they were okay.  I think the foreign minister broke his arm.  Chancellor, Willy Brandt was okay.  He was shaken but not hurt.  So Yigael Yadin, to his credit, sees what’s happening, sees the media’s there, we’re on top of this mountain and he immediately says, are you okay?  And Chancellor Brandt says I’m okay.  The foreign minister was not okay so they took him aside and he says, let’s go on the tour, are you ready to continue this tour?  And Willy Brandt says yes, and so they began the tour and he says, well here are Judean archaeology students. And so I had a dilemma.  What do I do?  Here I am at the top of this mountain, do I continue for what was supposed to be about an hour, hour and a half tour or do I try to break the story of what happened out there—there are no cell phones in those days.  One of the things I’ve learned…taught me early on, when you see breaking news in those days, you’ve got to find a telephone and you’ve got to call and start dictating the story, that was the only way to do it, there’s no Internet, nothing like that.  When I got there at 6:00 in the morning at the bottom of Masada there was a little coffee shop or a little tourist shop. And I remember that there was a payphone, and one of my mentors at Reuters always said, look for a payphone, make sure you have a lot of coins, because you never know when you’re going to have to make a call.  So in Israel the payphones, I don’t know about now but in those days they had tokens that you’d put in and they’d last for 30 seconds or 45 seconds, and then it would swallow it up and you’d have to put more in, so you can put a bunch in.  And I only had maybe 5 or 10 tokens, not many but I figured if it was an emergency—it never dawned on me, everybody thought this was just going to be a little sight-seeing you know, color story, ‘the German Chancellor visits Masada,’ we didn’t know that he was almost going to die.  So I had to make a decision—do I stay on the tour or do I get to that one phone and break the news.  And I said to myself, you know I work for a wire service 24 hours a day, it’s now 8:00 in the morning, people are interested.  So I left.  I saw what was going on, I ran to the trolley car, and the Israeli soldier says, nobody’s allowed to go down and I started screaming and I said please, you’ve got to let me go down, I work for a wire service, I saw AP was there, I saw UPI was there and I didn’t know what they were going to do but I had to get down there.  And finally I talked him into taking me down.  I get to this one payphone and I put my tokens in and I call the Tel Aviv Bureau of Reuters and Colin Bickler who was then the senior—one of the senior guys, he’s on the other line, he was originally from New Zealand, he had just come to Israel from Vietnam because the Vietnam War was winding down, the Middle East was winding up and I said, “Colin, I only have a few of these tokens, here’s my number at this payphone, call me right back, please,” it was a bad connection and he said, “What’s going on?”  I said, “just take this number down, I’ve got a big story, call me right back” and then he said, “What is happening?” and I said, “Write down the number”—and I used some bad words.  And I said just write down the number and I gave him the number and by the last number, I wasn’t sure he had heard it, I didn’t know if the connection had gone through, it was really scratchy, and I hung up the phone. I’ve got no more tokens and I’m waiting for whatever…it seemed forever.  Finally after a few minutes he connected with me, the phone rings, now it’s on his dime so he can talk as long as he wants.  So he said what’s going on?  I told him what was going on he said alright, they did a bulletin—news alert, whatever they called it—they called it bulletin in those days, ‘a helicopter carrying West German Chancellor Willy Brandt nearly blew off the top of Masada, the Chancellor was shaken but not hurt.’  That was the news alert.  And we filed it, it caused a big stir, especially in Germany and Europe, United States.  You know, it was a big story.  So then the journalistic dilemma, the ethical question came up, cause I started giving him color, and I started giving him more details, he started moving more paragraphs on the wire, it was our job.  The other journalists started coming, running down from the trolley car from the top.  There’s one phone there, that’s it.  Now, Colin Bickler said to me, “If you hang up the phone—I don’t want you to hang up the phone until his helicopter has gone, he’s back out of there, he’s gone, you’re going to be under enormous pressure because everybody—AP, UPI, New York Times, and all of the German media, they’re all going to want to use this phone.  You’re going be fired if you get off the phone.  You’re staying on this phone until the helicopter is safely out of the way.”  So you know, I did it, I stayed on the phone, I had all these other journalists who wanted to kill me basically, because they wanted to…  That was one of the ethical dilemmas I faced early on.  Was it the right thing?  Did I do the right thing in refusing to give up that one line or should I have shared with the competition?  I think I did the right thing, it’s a competitive world out there, we were reporting the news.  If that helicopter upon taking off, a second time would have crashed, and helicopters are not smooth all the time, we wouldn’t have had any way of communicating that, there’s no live Israel television news or radio—nobody was broadcasting this live or anything.  So I learned at that time that it’s a competitive business—the news business.  I didn’t do anything illegal, I didn’t lie to anybody, I didn’t steal anything.  I was the one who got to that phone first and I just couldn’t get off until the story was over, basically.  So that was an early ethical decision.
INTERVIEWER:  That’s a good story.  Can you remember other things along those lines?


BLITZER:  Over the years, there’s been a lot of questions about journalistic ethics that I got to deal with.  I’ll give you another example of an ethical problem that we had.  Saddam Hussein invades Kuwait, August 1, 1990, I’m CNN’s Pentagon correspondent.  That day, we had known that the Iraqis were moving troops from the Iranian border to the Kuwaiti border.  For a week they had been building up a presence north of Kuwait.  First 25,000, 50,000, 100,000 Iraqi troops including their so-called Elite Republican Guard, were now on the border with Kuwait in the days leading up to the invasion.  And U.S. intelligence was monitoring it, they were watching what was going on, and I was a Pentagon Correspondent.  That day, I remember having lunch with the Chief of Naval Operations, he was new on the job, and I asked him I said, “What’s with the Iraqis and Saddam Hussein moving and massing troops?”  And he said, “Well, our intelligence estimate is that he’s threatening the Emir of Kuwait, wants to raise the price of oil because they need the money.  But our intelligence estimate of the U.S. government is, he’s not going to invade a fellow Arab country.  There might be some tension along the borders and border skirmishes, but just designed to exert pressure on the Emir of Kuwait.”  That night I was having dinner, a few journalists were invited to dinner with a high ranking CIA official—one of these off the record kind of dinners—and I asked him the same question I said, what’s going on with the Iraqis on the border.  And he basically said the same thing the Chief of Naval Operations said, “You know I think maybe he’s trying to intimidate the Emir, raise the price of oil, we don’t think he’s going to invade a fellow Arab country, that’s the estimate of the U.S. government.”  Fine.  Driving home, about 10:00 at night, now 10:15 and as I’m pulling in my driveway my beeper—in those days you had beepers—goes off and it vibrates, and I look down it’s my news desk.  And I go to my study in my house and the news editor says, “Wolf, Reuters is quoting sources in the Persian Gulf as saying Iraqi troops have crossed the border and have gone into Kuwait.  We don’t have this can you check it out?”  And I said “Hey, I just had dinner with a high-ranking CIA official; I had lunch with the chief of Naval Operations.  There may be some border skirmishes but they’re not going to invade a fellow Arab country…”  I gave him the whole U.S. government estimate.  Fortunately my editor said “Look, do me a favor, check it out, see what you can find out, it’s a big story.”  I said okay.  So what does a journalist do in Washington to check out a story like this, which could be a huge story or it could be just nothing.  I said to myself—I work in reverse, let’s assume it’s true.  And I said if it’s true, then I have a good source in DIA (Defense Intelligence Agency) at the Pentagon who’s in charge of the Persian Gulf.  He’s not at home getting ready to go to sleep at 10:30 at night or whatever, he’s been called back to the emergency room—the tank—whatever they call it there.  There’s a crisis at the Pentagon, he’d be at his desk in his office.  So I said you know what, I’ll just call his direct number at his office, see if it just rings or if there’s a pickup.  I was sure that it would just ring but I said I have got to try it, it’s my job.  So I call that direct number and to my utter amazement, on the first ring, I hear a very agitated, “Yea.”  And I knew it was him.  And I said, “You’re working.”  And he said “Yea.”  I said, “Reuters is quoting sources in the Gulf as saying the Iraqis have crossed the line and gone into Kuwait.  What can you tell me?”  And he hesitated for a while.  There was a pertinent pause.  But after 15-20 seconds whatever, he said—and I’ll never forget it cause I wrote it down in my notebook.  He said, “Wolf it’s a lot worse than that.”  I said, “What’s going on?”  He said, “Not only have they crossed the line and gone into Kuwait, they are moving through Kuwait like a knife goes through butter.  The is a full scale invasion, the Emir of Kuwait has already fled, their tiny air force has flown into Saudi Arabia, this is a disaster.  Cheney, he’s Defense Secretary, he’s in the National Military Command Center.  Colin Powell, Chairman of the Joint Chief, they’ve all been alerted.”  I said, “What time was it when it was breaking?”  He said, “About 8:00 our time.”  And I said, “Wow.”  So, this was a reliable source, someone I had worked with over the years, someone I knew well, I knew he was working, I felt confident calling back CNN and saying, this is what we can report.  A source at the Pentagon tells CNN, x, y and z.  I do that, I do it on the phone, we do breaking news, the whole world is watching obviously by then.  CNN’s not only in the United States but it’s live around the world.  The Bureau Chief Bill Headline—that’s his real name—calls me up a few seconds after I hang up the phone and says “Wolf, I know you’ve been working all day, take a shower, put on a clean shirt, get back to the Pentagon, you’re going to be live all night.”  And of course I do that.  So I’m walking into the Pentagon and you see the parking lots filling up, they’re coming in, all the workers.  In those days, if the Russians wanted to know if there was a crisis they could signal their satellites over the parking lots at the Pentagon.  If they see a lot of cars, they know there’s a crisis.  So it’s now midnight, I’m on the air and I report what I knew.  I didn’t know a whole lot more, I had spoken to one or two more people but I really didn’t have much more information and I remember the anchor saying to me, follow-up questions—“So Wolf, what’s the Bush Administration going to do about this?”  The first President Bush.  And I felt like saying, beats me, I don’t have a clue.  But you can’t say that on television so I said, “Well, in the week leading up, officials were saying treaty alliance with Kuwait, there’s no formal recognition of any treaty, pact, or anything like that.  The Kuwaitis, the Saudis, they never wanted to have U.S. troops there, they wanted them to be over the horizon, Diego Garcia, the Indian Ocean or someplace.  So I said there’s probably not a whole lot the U.S. can do right now, that’s what I said, something along those lines.  We had a little exchange like that, I come back to my office and even before I could sit down, my phone was ringing, pick up and it’s a high ranking Pentagon official—very high ranking and he said,  “Wolf, we’re watching you in the National Military Command Center, we just saw your report.”  And that didn’t instill a whole lot of confidence in me that they were in the National Military Command Center watching my report—I’m saying to myself, don’t they have better things to do than watch?  And he said, “Don’t you know what you’ve just done?”  And I said, “Help me.”  He said, “You have basically told Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi military leadership to not only go through all of Kuwait, but to continue moving towards the oil fields in the eastern provinces in Saudi Arabia and continue to take over the oil in Saudi Arabia because there’s not much that can stop them.  Kuwaitis can’t stop them, Saudis can’t stop them, and the U.S., you basically just told them, really doesn’t have any military capability in the region.”  And I said, “So what are you going to do about all of this?”  And he said, “Well, the president has authorized me to tell you that he is not ruling out any option, including the military option in stopping the Iraqis and making sure that this does not survive or whatever.”  I said, “Can I report that?”  “Yes, you can report that.”  Now, it was clear to me that they wanted to send a message to Baghdad.  In the olden days they would go through some Swiss Embassy or send a diplomatic message…they didn’t have the time in this because they were moving.  It was daylight, it was now morning in Kuwait and the Iraqis were moving and the fastest way they could send a message to the Iraqis was through me.  This military guy had said to me, he said “Whoa, when you’re standing at the Pentagon in the briefing room with a map of the world behind you, the American flag behind you, the podium, seal, department of defense behind you and they’re watching you in Baghdad as they were, they don’t see you as CNN Wolf Blitzer private journalist, they think you are the Pentagon.  They don’t understand that you’re just a reporter.  They think you’re the United States and when you just say there’s not a whole lot the U.S. can do—at least in the short term to stop this, they’re going to be encouraged.  So, the dilemma I faced, I said to myself, I know they’re using me, cause they want to send a message; on the other hand, there’s news.  The President of the United States—I have just been told by a senior Pentagon official—issuing a warning that all options are on the table, including the military option in stopping the Iraqis.  Now, if the President of United States conveys that message through an official at the Pentagon to me, do I report it?  Or do I not report it?  My attitude was I report it.  It’s news.  Am I at the same time being “used” to send a message?  Of course, I understood that.  But I understood also that I had to get the news out and obviously we know what happened in Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm in the 6, 7, 8 months that followed.  But it was an initial ethical dilemma that I had and I think I made the right call on that one.  I’ll give you one more ethical issue that came up later, in January of 1991—if you’re interested.  Are you intested?

INTERVIEWER:  Absolutely, yeah.

BLITZER:  The war starts.  The air war starts and the U.S. is pounding Baghdad.  In retaliation, Saddam Hussein sends scud missiles into Saudi Arabia and into Israel.  Some of the first scud missiles that he launched landed in Israel; and I remember the first one that landed in Israel—the Israelis announced and the U.S. announced, Iraqis announced the scud missiles fired landed in Israel.  Now, I had worked in Israel for Reuters news agency, I knew Israel, I was curious—where did that scud missile hit?  What kind of damage did it cause?  So I call up my sources in the Pentagon and they tell me, the scud missile lands in Ramat Gan which is a suburb of Tel Aviv, not far from the Diamond Exchange, the Diamond Mart.  I knew exactly where it was.  It hit a building but didn’t cause any loss of life, a couple people were injured—nobody dead, caused some damage to the building.  And I report, I go on the air and I say the initial scud that lands in Israel landed in the suburb of Tel Aviv, Ramat Gan near the Diamond Exchange.  I come back to my desk, I get another angry phone call from the senior Pentagon official saying “Wolf, what are you doing?”  And I said, “Help me, I don’t know, I must be doing something wrong.”  He said, “Why are you becoming a spotter for the Iraqi military?”  I said “What?”  He said, “Why are you telling them where their scud missile lands?  Don’t you realize that if they adjust it…they were aiming for the Israeli Defense Ministry, which was about a mile away from that spot.  You’re telling them that they have to adjust their calculations a little bit and they’ll hit the Israeli Defense Ministry which is what they were trying to do and you basically just told them how to do it.”  And I said I didn’t realize that.  So I faced an ethical dilemma, do I suppress this from now on—specific details where the missile lands?  I consulted with our CNN executives, our news executives, and we all made a decision and then all the major news organizations agreed with us that from then on, whether in Saudi Arabia or in Israel or any place else, we wouldn’t say where the missiles landed.  We would just give a generic—they landed in Central Israel, wouldn’t say what cities or anything.  Where they landed in Central or Eastern Saudi Arabia, we wouldn’t say Riyadh or Tehran or anything like that cause we didn’t want to start becoming spotters for the Iraqi military.  So we suppressed that—now was that a journalistically ethical decision?  In my opinion it was because as much as we’re news people, we’re also human beings and we don’t want to do anything that’s going to allow people to die, whether U.S. soldiers in Saudi Arabia or Israelis—we’re not going to do anything like that, so we made the call that we were going to suppress and not give the specific location of where these scuds are—he launched a lot of scuds, we knew where they were landing.  But after that first burst by me, nobody else ever reported that.  Again, we would just say generically where they landed.

INTERVIEWER:  Did you explain to viewers that you did that, that you were suppressing?

BLITZER:  Yes we did.  I was totally transparent with the viewers and I would say, we know where these missiles are landing but we’re not going to tell you and here’s why.  My belief over all of these 35 years—almost 40 years of being a journalist has always been, if you’re transparent with the viewers or the readers, listeners; if; you’re honest with them, you tell them why you’re making these decisions, they’ll accept that.  It’s only when you try to conceal something and mislead or whatever, that you get into journalistic, ethical trouble.  But if you’re honest with them, they’ll appreciate it.  Now, over the years there have not been many cases where we’ve suppressed information for national security considerations.  There have been times, and it’s going to be a great case that the government makes, when we do that, but it almost always has to be--lives are at stake.

INTERVIEWER:  I also wanted to go back to the run up to the Iraq war.  When people look back now, I know both the New York Times and the Washington Post printed these sort of mea culpas that we were too credulous, we focus sort of over much on the administration’s case for the war and not enough on those—the skeptics who are saying wait a minute, he doesn’t really have the weapons of mass destruction.  There doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of evidence of any kind in cahoots between Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden.  When you look back on that coverage now, how do you evaluate it?

BLITZER:  I think we could have done a better job.  It’s hard you know but we did have skeptics on my shows, I had Dr. Hans Blix, he was Iran’s weapons inspector.  I had Dr. Muhammad ElBaradei, the nuclear…IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) director general.  I had skeptics who were saying, well it’s not true.  Even some members of congress, Senator Bob Graham of Florida was a skeptic and I had him on often.  On the other hand, when the President of the United States, Vice President of the United States, Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, head of the intelligence, CIA, they’re all telling Congress and the American public and the United Nations, here is the evidence of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction—you’ve got to report that.  If he CIA director says that…if Colin Powell, who’s the Secretary of State, goes before the United Nations security council with his pictures and diagrams, you’ve got to report that.  Should we have been more skeptical in our reporting?  Probably, certainly now that we know that there were no stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction and there was not much of a nuclear program at all, no biological or chemical weapons.  They had a capability to develop them but they didn’t have any.  And Saddam Hussein wanted us to believe that he had it so to intimidate his enemies and to try to deter the U.S. and the others from invading them, so he didn’t deny it.  But certainly, journalism is the first draft of history and we do our best, sometimes we get it right, sometimes we don’t.  Can we always do a better job?  Yes.  Could we have done a better job then?  I’m sure we could have.  It wasn’t as if we totally ignored the other side.  And remember, we were also getting confirmation from all of the other allies that Saddam Hussein had this.  You’ve got the British and the French, they were all agreeing with the U.S.  Even some of the Arab countries; Egypt, Syria, they weren’t disputing.  You did have the French who were saying, he may have it but there are other ways of dealing with it other than going to war.  You don’t necessarily have to go to war, you can put him in a box and contain him, sanctions and diplomatic pressure—stuff like that.  So there was a dispute about whether or not the invasion was necessary.  And I reported all of that but…scholars like you will continue to study that and see if we could have done a better job.