BOB GARFIELD: When to print a photo can have much more serious ramifications. On August 22nd, The Seattle Times published a surreptitiously taken image of two men standing on a Washington state ferry. Their odd behavior had aroused the suspicions of ferry employees who notified the FBI. But the bureau needed to identify the men in order to question them, and drew a blank, so it took the unusual step of approaching the Seattle media and asking them to publish the photo - not of suspects in a crime but persons of interest in a potential crime.
The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, after careful consideration, declined to cooperate on civil liberties grounds. But after its own deliberations, the rival Seattle Times did publish the picture.
Suki Dardarian is the managing editor of news coverage at The Times and she joins me now. Suki, welcome to the show. SUKI DARDARIAN: Thank you. BOB GARFIELD: So the FBI calls and says what? SUKI DARDARIAN: We've got these pictures of these guys who are suspicious. Could you please put them in your newspaper? BOB GARFIELD: And you said, well, of course, sure. Send them over. We'll print them up right away. Special edition. SUKI DARDARIAN: No, no, no, no, no. We looked at the photographs and we talked about it and made a preliminary call that we wanted to think and talk and report some more.
We had actually written a story a few weeks earlier saying that the authorities had stepped up security on the ferry system because there had been some suspicious-looking characters aboard the boats, so we had reported that. What was new on this Monday afternoon was that the FBI wanted to show us these photographs of these people who were identified as suspicious and ask us to put them in the paper. BOB GARFIELD: Now, no crime had been committed. SUKI DARDARIAN: Correct. BOB GARFIELD: And the photos were men apparently of Middle Eastern descent, so the issue of racial profiling must have been on everybody's mind. SUKI DARDARIAN: Well, in fact, it's not clear whether they were of Middle Eastern descent. I mean, one could say they might be. They're not blond men. But, more important, these are individuals who were standing on a ferry and now the FBI was asking us to put those photos out in association with a story that suggested they might be terrorists.
So the first thought was the responsibility to these individuals. Were they tourists? Were they students? Were they just interested ferry riders? BOB GARFIELD: And what kind of case did the FBI make to you to suggest that there was more here than met the eye, that this had risen to the level of calling them suspicious characters? SUKI DARDARIAN: They told us that they had been seen as many as six times on various boats, that people had reported these folks were saying suspicious things and behaving suspiciously, taking pictures, and that that was enough for them. They told us that on Monday night. That wasn't enough, so we held off publishing so that we could really push back and get more information from them.
They talked to us further about how they had connected the dots. They gave us more context surrounding the photograph, which had been taken by a ferry employee. They explained to us the deliberation process they went through before they came to us. They actually went to the folks in Washington, D.C., and said, we want to do this. You know, what do you think? They'd never done this before. So we felt that this wasn't a casual request.
You know, the other elements out there were the fact that last year our ferry system was singled out by D.O.J. Inspector General as one of the top two maritime terrorist targets in the country. And eight years ago, Ahmed Rassam, an al Qaeda-trained terrorist, was captured on the ferry coming from Canada to Washington state. He was later convicted of conspiring to set off a bomb at Los Angeles International Airport, and, in fact, his trunk at that time was filled with bomb-making materials. So that's sort of the backdrop. BOB GARFIELD: News organizations go to pretty great lengths not to be seen as a tool of law enforcement or any part of officialdom. When you agreed to do this, were there concerns that you had that you were, you know, in effect, becoming an arm of the FBI. SUKI DARDARIAN: You bet. That was one of the things that we put on the scales as we measured what we were going to do. There's a slippery slope. Some suspicious person shows up tomorrow, are they going to be coming to us asking us to print that photo? And will every police agency do this? So we felt it important to partner those photographs with a story not only about the photos and the investigation but that addressed the issue of us publishing the photos as well. BOB GARFIELD: I guess one obvious last question. Has the publication, and pretty wide distribution of these photographs, turned anything up? SUKI DARDARIAN: Not that we know of. The FBI tells us they have received almost 300 tips. They are checking them out. They say they're confident that they'll be able to identify these people. BOB GARFIELD: Suki, thank you so much for joining us. SUKI DARDARIAN: You're welcome. BOB GARFIELD: Suki Dardarian is managing editor of news coverage at The Seattle Times. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] Coming up, what not to wear with the President on the Fourth of July, and other creepy tidbits from the Presidential Advance Manual. This is On the Media from NPR.