Taliban Wanted $25 Million for Life of New York Times Reporter

Contentious debate at New York Times over paying for David Rohde's release.

May 26, 2009, 11:24 AM

June 22, 2009— -- The Taliban leader who held New York Times reporter David Rohde hostage for seven months initially demanded a ransom of $25 million and the release of 10 prisoners from Guantanamo, according to people involved in subsequent negotiations.

Rohde's captor was reportedly identified by the FBI and CIA as Siraj Haqqani, the son of a senior Taliban leader Jalaluddin Haqqani who is considered to be close to al Qaeda. He and his Taliban associates reportedly referred to the American journalist as their "golden rooster."

Haqqani demonstrated his violent ways by reportedly killing a messenger sent to establish that Rohde was still alive, according to people familiar with the FBI criminal investigation of the kidnapping.

The U.S. posted a $5 million reward for Siraj Haqqani's capture during the time he held Rohde.

New York Times executive editor Bill Keller said "no ransom was paid" for Rohde's release, during an appearance on the ABC News program "This Week With George Stephanopoulos."

A New York Times spokeswoman declined to comment on whether the paper had considered paying any ransom for Rohde's release.

People familiar with the case say there were heated and contentious debates in The New York Times executive offices on the issue, with some of Rohde's colleagues arguing no ransom should be paid for fear it could set a precedent.

"They didn't want to turn every New York Times reporter into an ATM machine for terrorists," said one of the people who was apprised of the discussions.

In the end, the newspaper did not have to confront the issue, as Rohde was able to escape from the compound where he was being held in a Pakistani town in North Waziristan.

Keller said he would not disclose many of the details of what happened for fear of "helping write the playbook for the next kidnapping.

"I can't even tell you what the circumstances were that created the opportunity at the end" for his escape, he said.

In a memo to The New York Times staff over the weekend, Keller urged staffers not to talk about "understandable questions about who did what to make this happen."

Rohde and Afghan Journalist Planned Their Escape

According to a Times account Monday morning, Rohde and the Afghan journalist who was with him when he was captured, Tahir Ludin, managed to keep their guards up late by playing board games and then made a run for it when the guards fell asleep around 1 a.m. early Saturday.

According to Ludin, he and Rohde managed to scale down a 20-foot wall with rope Ludin had found and hidden earlier.

Ludin said he had helped to arrange a meeting between Rohde and another Taliban leader, Abu Tayeb, but that Tayeb betrayed his trust.

Since the Nov. 10 kidnapping, The New York Times had withheld news of the case and asked other news media outlets, including ABC News, to do the same.

In his staff memo, Keller said, "As journalists, we all cringe at the idea of sitting on a story, but the consensus of experts we consulted -- and the judgment of the family -- was that a storm of publicity would at best prolong David's captivity by increasing his apparent value, and could well put him in imminent danger."

At the same time The New York Times was sitting on the story, Rohde's fate was being closely monitored by the White House, the Pentagon, the CIA, the FBI and the State Department.

His kidnapping was an open secret in U.S. government and international circles, but the news embargo held.

"We debated it among ourselves over and over again," said Keller.

The roving U.S. ambassador in the region, Richard Holbrooke, was described as playing "an important role" in pushing Pakistani officials for help in tracking Rohde's whereabouts. When Rohde was held hostage for 10 days by the Serbian army in Bosnia in 1995, Holbrooke also helped gain his release there.

Rohde's driver was too scared to attempt the escape, Ludin told The New York Times. His fate is unknown.

Rohde is in Dubai where he will be reunited with his wife who he had married only two months before the kidnapping.

"When the time comes, I expect he'll have a story to tell," said Keller in his memo to the staff.

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