NEW YORK -- Since Friday, CNN has defended its decision to remove and report from a personal journal belonging to late U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens, found on the consulate floor three days after the deadly Sept. 11 terrorist attack in Benghazi. CNN managing editor Mark Whitaker said Monday that the network had "an obligation" to follow up on the journal's contents, including Stevens' concerns about being the possible target of terrorists.
State Department spokesman Philippe Reines, meanwhile, blasted the network Saturday, calling its handling of the journal "disgusting." "Whose first instinct is to remove from a crime scene the diary of a man killed along with three other Americans serving our country, read it, transcribe it, email it around your newsroom for others to read, and only when their curiosity is fully satisfied thinks to call the family or notify the authorities?" asked Reines.
CNN -– which acknowledged having Stevens' journal Friday night after queries from The Huffington Post and the Wall Street Journal -- has received criticism for removing it and mining its seven pages for newsworthy tips before returning it to the family. However, some journalists and media critics have defended the network's use of the journal in reporting out information vital to the public interest, including the ambassador's pre-attack concerns.
But one question remains: How did CNN senior international correspondent Arwa Damon walk out of a "crime scene" with what would presumably be a piece of evidence needed for the investigation?
Damon, who described the consulate on Sept. 14 as "completely gutted," isn't commenting on finding the journal, but journalists who were at the consulate days after the attack told The Huffington Post that it wouldn't have been hard to remove something given the lack of security.
"We were astonished because this was a crime scene," said London Times foreign reporter Martin Fletcher, who arrived at the consulate on Sept. 13, a day before the journal was removed.
"If it had been in the West, there would be forensics experts picking over the rubble and ashes," Fletcher continued. "There was none of that at all."
In an interview with The Huffington Post, Fletcher said "there was no sign at all of any security or investigators from Libya or the United States. For that reason, he said, "there would have been no problem at all picking up something and putting it in a brief case."
Fletcher added that journalists were also free to tour the "annex," a U.S. safe house roughly a kilometer away that was also attacked. "Someone showed us where it was," Fletcher said. "We went in. The owner was there. He showed us around." There was no security or any sign of any investigator at the annex, according to Fletcher.
CNN, in an un-bylined web article published at 1:15 a.m. Saturday, reported the "journal was found on the floor of the largely unsecured consulate compound where he was fatally wounded." CNN hasn't offered a clearer description of where exactly Damon found the journal.
Chris Stephen, the Guardian's Libya correspondent, took a tour of the consulate with its owners on Sept. 13 and wrote vividly about what he found left behind.
"Once the mob had seized the compound they looted it," Stephen wrote. "The surrounding lawns are covered in stray US army ready meals, broken furniture and, incongruously, the dustjacket of Simon Sebag Montefiore's book on the history of Jerusalem."
By phone from Libya, Stephen told The Huffington Post that he was "surprised" everyone else who passed through the consulate before Damon had missed the journal.
Stephen took the tattered dustjacket with him, seeing no evidentiary value to it. However, Stephen said he left behind a helmet, presumably belonging to U.S. personnel. "I pulled it out of a bush," Stephen said. "When I saw what it was, I popped it back in again. I thought this might be important."
Stephen said that the owners of the compound, which was "comprehensively burned," let him in to tour it. Although one of the landlords followed him around much of the time, Stephen acknowledged reporters could likely remove an item if they desired.
"If you found something, you could pick it up," Stephen said. "Most of us didn't. If you see something that's part of a murder inquiry, you don't tamper with it."
Alice Fordham, a reporter for Abu Dhabi-based the National, was also allowed to tour the compound with its owners on Sept. 13 and had a similar experience.
"When we arrived in the morning, we were let in, and shown around by the man we had met the previous night, who wandered off from time to time to speak to several other journalists who came in," Fordham wrote. "We had total freedom of movement and could easily have picked up various business cards, books, keys, ties etc that were lying around. As I recall, this chap said that Libyan police had come to examine the scene but no Americans at the time. I'm not at all surprised it was possible to find a personal journal. I didn't remove anything myself, but there was nothing preventing me from doing so."
Asked Monday about the lack of security after the attack, Reines pointed out that there were no longer any U.S. government personnel on the ground to protect. (The New York Times reported Monday on the "catastrophic intelligence loss" resulting from personnel fleeing.) Given the ongoing security situation, Reines said State Department personnel have still not returned to Benghazi and that he could not speak for the FBI, which is investigating the attack. An FBI spokeswoman did not respond to requests for comment.
The Times reported that the FBI has sent investigators to Benghazi but that it's unclear "whether there was much forensic evidence that could be extracted from the scene of the attacks." Another complication, Fletcher said, is the compound owners already had people moving into the section that was not impacted by the attack.
"That's how little security," Fletcher said. "They were moving their own people in there, where the Americans had been attacked, 24 hours later."
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