In this episode of Intelligence Matters, host Michael Morell speaks with CNN chief international correspondent Clarissa Ward, who shares anecdotes and personal reflections related to her memoir, “On All Fronts: The Education of a Journalist.” Ward explains how the attacks on September 11, 2001, prompted her to pursue a career in broadcast journalism, and how she rose through the ranks to become an on-air correspondent. She details her experiences reporting from conflict zones in Iraq, Lebanon and Syria, and what drove her to tell the stories of people living in war-torn areas. Ward also tells Morell about her friendship with American journalist Austin Tice, as well as her efforts to search for Tice after his abduction in Syria in 2012.
- Pursuing journalism career after 9/11 attacks: “I think as a linguist and as a sort of natural storyteller, I felt a very strong sense of calling. I felt that maybe my life could be better off serving a bigger cause in the name of trying to provide better communication between different cultures, different countries, but also the sense of trying to explain more to people at home as well what was going on in the rest of the world, because so often we know this as Americans, that the way we see ourselves and our ideals and our aspirations is not always the way the rest of the world sees us. And so trying to kind of transcend that divide a little bit.”
- Engaging with people living in conflict zones: “[I]f there aren’t people on the ground listening and engaging with civilians who are living in the crossfire in these terrible conflict zones, those voices don’t get heard because the voices we usually hear are the soldiers, the militants, the geopolitics, the world leaders. And this brave elderly woman who just ripped out a roadside bomb and is screaming at someone to get it out of her neighborhood – that’s not a voice that we hear from enough. And to this day, I think that inspires me to keep doing this job and reminds me of the value of having people on the ground.”
- Friendship with Austin Tice: “[B]ecause has a military background, I [he] think felt a little bit invincible. And as a freelancer, there’s always a little bit of a danger because you don’t have that editor every day saying, ‘You can’t do this, you can’t do that. You have to come back. You that’s too dangerous. That’s too difficult.’ Austin didn’t really have that. And so I noticed as our friendship went on over the course of a couple of months, he was taking more risks. He was doing things that I thought were really, really dangerous.”
INTELLIGENCE MATTERS – CLARISSA WARD
PRODUCER: OLIVIA GAZIS
MICHAEL MORELL: Clarissa, welcome to Intelligence Matters. It’s great to have you on the show and congratulations on your book On All Fronts: The Education of a Journalist. Extraordinarily well done. So, congrats.
CLARISSA WARD: Well, thank you so much. I’m really excited to be on and chatting with you.
MICHAEL MORELL: So, Clarissa, in your book, maybe this is the place to start, is you describe what sounds like a privileged but very unconventional childhood. Can you kind of explain that and talk a little bit about how that shaped who you grew up to be?
CLARISSA WARD: Yeah, I mean, my mother is American, my father is British, and my parents were both workaholics. I’m an only child. And they separated when I was two years old, but they never actually divorced. And they had other boyfriends and girlfriends for a lot of my childhood. And I just had huge amounts of time on my own, basically. And we lived mostly in the Upper East Side in Manhattan. When I was young and I remember I became obsessed with TV shows and like acting out dramas upstairs in my room. And then in the summers I would get sent off to the U.K. to stay with my granny, who was a sort of incredible force of nature and a very domineering woman, also an incredible woman.
And I just think that between the sort of long, long periods alone and the international travel back and forth between the U.S. and the U.K., being sent off to a very strict boarding school at a really young age, when I was just 10, you kind of learned that you had to be able to adapt wherever you went and you learned that you had to be a chameleon and that you had to be able to shape yourself to the cultures or places that you were spending time in if you were going to make them enjoyable and make some fun out of them. And it also, I think, got me interested in traveling and telling stories.
MICHAEL MORELL: What made your grandmother such a force of nature?
CLARISSA WARD: So my grandmother was sort of one of these women who was born into the wrong era. I think she spoke four languages fluently. She was a classically trained pianist. She was incredibly brilliant. She had written a string of novels and many plays and books of poetry and never been published and had followed my grandfather around during his time in the colonial service, living in Singapore and Somalia. And he had a mistress who was this woman from Singapore who he’d met, and she said it was OK as long as he never left her. And then at one stage, they were all three of them living together in this flat in London. And my granny had a fence erected down the middle of the of the apartment so that they could – So, I mean, the whole thing was so insane and eccentric, but very typical of my granny, because as much as she was this force of nature and such an innovator in so many ways, she was also intimidated by convention and by the demands of society. And and she wasn’t yet in a place in her life where she felt like she could go out on her own and achieve her full potential. And I think that frustrated her a lot.
MICHAEL MORELL: Clarissa, you described 9/11 as a wake up call for you. How did that help clarify that journalism was your calling?
CLARISSA WARD: You know, it’s such a rare thing, I think, in life where one moment changes everything and I’m always struck when I talk to young journalism students, as I often do, that many of them didn’t know a world before 9/11. And I don’t need to tell you, Michael. And for so many of us Americans, this was just a moment that changed your entire life. It turned the world that you thought you knew completely upside down, especially for me as a senior studying comparative literature at Yale University, studying French and Russian and Italian, specifically with little real sense of what I wanted to do in the world, I suddenly became incredibly clear on the fact that it was a little bit shameful that I hadn’t been more engaged with what was really going on in the world and that I hadn’t been more attuned to what a big place the world was and how much misunderstanding and miscommunication there was in the world.
And that’s where I think as a linguist and as a sort of natural storyteller, I felt a very strong sense of calling. I felt that maybe my life could be better off serving a bigger cause in the name of trying to provide better communication between different cultures, different countries, but also the sense of trying to explain more to people at home as well what was going on in the rest of the world, because so often we know this as Americans, that the way we see ourselves and our ideals and our aspirations is not always the way the rest of the world sees us. And so trying to kind of transcend that divide a little bit. I was twenty-two. There’s a lot of hubris in this and I had a lot of lessons to learn. But in that moment, that seemed like the only important thing in the world to me.
MICHAEL MORELL: So you do a summer internship at CNN in Moscow and then you start a job at Fox, which sends you on your first rotation to Baghdad. What was that like? What did you enjoy most about it? What did you find most disheartening? Talk to us about that.
CLARISSA WARD: So, I mean, it was the most exciting thing in the entire world. I had been begging my boss for over a year to go to Baghdad. And then finally I was sent because nobody else wanted to go. That had been two years since the invasion. It was a disaster already. It was incredibly dangerous, incredibly difficult to work there, unbearably hot in the summer. And I went in June of 2005. But for me it was the thrill of feeling like I was finally in a war zone. And I had felt such a strong sense that that’s where I wanted to be, reporting primarily from conflict zones. And it was the excitement of the landing on the airplane, which was this so-called corkscrew landing to avoid potential missiles.
And so the plane would essentially go down at a very, very steep trajectory in a sort of tight series of concentric circles to avoid being hit. It was utterly petrifying the first time you did it, and then the plane door opened and there’s this blast of hot, hot air. One-hundred-and-twenty-degree air just in your face and on the tarmac waiting For U.S. troops. And you just suddenly realize, ‘Wow, I’m actually in a war zone now. I’ve only ever seen this on TV and in movies.’ And it was very exciting.
But very quickly, you also realize you inevitably you become humbled in a war zone because you realize that there’s nothing glamorous or exciting about war, that war is actually hell. And for me, the first real understanding of the life or death consequences was when on my second trip into Baghdad, our compound at the Palestine Hotel was attacked in a triple suicide car bomb attack. And actually the third vehicle was a massive cement mixer filled with explosives that got caught on razor wire when it was about 100 yards away from the hotel. But it was the third blast, and I mean, literally, doors blew off their hinges, the ceilings were coming in and there was smoke everywhere. People were covered in cuts and bruises. And you read that awful feeling where you’re like, ‘I could die right now, I might die.’ And it’s not a feeling of sadness or anything. For me, it was more a sense of, ‘Oh, my gosh, this is real. This is real. This isn’t a game. This isn’t a movie. It’s real.’
And I think my take away from it, of course, you know, afterwards, when you survive something intense like that, there’s always this boundary or barrier between you and the event in the retelling of it. And when you survive and you tell the story and you lose that sense of of urgency, of closeness to death. But what I did gain from that was a very real understanding that this was what Iraqis were going through day in and day out. And I felt very strongly that we were failing as the media in terms of telling their stories because of the security situation, because we were basically living in these highly, highly militarized compounds, basically, where we could not have that kind of free and easy interaction. It just meant that so much of the story became about the U.S. military because that was the only way to get out. And the U.S. military was absolutely a very important part of the story. But I felt this strong sense of lacking that we were not connecting enough with Iraqis and we weren’t telling their stories enough.
MICHAEL MORELL: Clarissa, you then go to Gaza. What was going on between the Israelis and the Palestinians during that time? And if you could, could you tell the story of the old woman with a bomb, which I think is absolutely fascinating.
CLARISSA WARD: So I was living in Beirut at the time and working as a freelancer. I had just got out of Baghdad. I got a call – this is in 2006 – to go because an Israeli soldier had been captured in Gaza. And so it was sort of inevitable or the feeling was that it was inevitable that there was going to be a huge Israeli military operation to try to rescue this man, Gilad Shalit, Corporal Gilad Shalit. So I went into Gaza. And I had never been to Israel or Gaza before, and I obviously spoke some Arabic and I felt very comfortable with Palestinian people, but it immediately became clear it was so different to the kind of combat that I had experienced in Iraq, where I had always basically been with the US military or always been in the heavily guarded compound.
And suddenly you’re in Gaza and there’s sonic booms throughout the day where I literally jumped under the table the first time I heard one. And there’s airstrikes continuing. There’s artillery. And you feel incredibly vulnerable as a journalist, let alone obviously if you’re an ordinary Palestinian and you don’t have body armor or a helmet.
But we were going out daily because it was an Israeli ground incursion and we went to one town called Beit Lahiya, I believe. And there were militants sort of engaging with the Israeli military. It was mostly Israeli tanks at that stage and we went – as we sat, we were going along, we were trying to look for a place to do some live shots. And I saw this woman coming out into the street and, like, pulling something out of the ground. And then she starts shouting at at some of the Hamas militants who were in the area fighting. And I looked over at the correspondent I was working with, I was a producer at the time, and I said, ‘Is that a bomb? Did she just pull a bomb out of the ground?’ And sure enough, we’re listening. And, you know, the militants had laid this sort of improvised explosive device and they were shouting back to this woman [inaudible] a sort of respectful term to refer to a woman. And they’re saying, ‘Put it back, it’s for the occupier, put it back.’
And she’s like having this face off with them. And I just could not believe the bravery of this woman, not because she has any love or sympathy for the Israeli tanks and troops in Gaza, but because she doesn’t want this violence and this fighting and this bloodshed in her neighborhood. And whether it’s Hamas laying a bomb or Israelis lobbing shells, she wants it out of her neighborhood. And the extraordinary bravery and courage of this woman. And just watching this moment, I thought to myself, ‘This is why I do this job. This is what I care about. I care about these voices.’
And if there aren’t people on the ground listening and engaging with civilians who are living in the crossfire in these terrible conflict zones, those voices don’t get heard because the voices we usually hear are the soldiers, the militants, the geopolitics, the world leaders. And this brave elderly woman who just ripped out a roadside bomb and is screaming at someone to get it out of her neighborhood – that’s not a voice that we hear from enough. And to this day, I think that inspires me to keep doing this job and reminds me of the value of having people on the ground.
MICHAEL MORELL: I mean, one of the things that inspires me here, right, is, is that you’re willing to put yourself at significant risk in order to tell those stories, right. U.S. diplomats, U.S. intelligence officers, U.S. military put themselves at risk, you know, for the security of their nation. You’re putting yourself at risk so that you can tell these people’s stories. And I find that really inspiring.
CLARISSA WARD: Well, thank you. I appreciate that. And, you know, it’s a distinction that I think, you know, you often with all of these sort of accusations being leveled at people nowadays, particularly in the mainstream media, about fake news. And and I find it disheartening for a number of reasons. Not that I want to throw a pity party about it, because I think we just have to get on with our jobs and do good work. But I’m always reminded that, you know, I’m not here to shape opinion or determine, you know, political action or military intervention. I’m here fundamentally to tell those stories and to shine a light on certain issues that maybe would only get a certain type of attention if it wasn’t for reporters doing the kind of work that I do.
MICHAEL MORELL: After Gaza, Clarissa, you find yourself again in the middle of conflict, this time the 2006 Lebanon War. Where were you when you heard that news and how was covering Lebanon different than covering Iraq?
CLARISSA WARD: Yeah, I mean, it’s a really good question. So it was a sort of an extraordinary story. I was in the offices of Hezbollah, if you can believe that, because we were pitching to do a story on Christianity and we wanted to get an interview with a senior Hezbollah leader to talk about Christianity in Lebanon, in the Middle East.
And as I was there, another officer came running – and they have a press office in southern Beirut. And another officer came running in and they started pouring cups of juice and they were like, very, very excited, and I was trying to pick up snippets of what they were saying, and they offered me a cup of juice and I said, ‘Well, thank you. Are we celebrating? What are you celebrating?’
They said, ‘Yes, we’re celebrating. We’ve just captured some Zionist soldiers.’ And I thought, ‘Oh, my God, OK.’ And the first thing I thought was, ‘OK, put the juice down and get out of the office.’ And by now I could hear fireworks and gunshots going off in outside and throughout the entire area. People were celebrating that Israeli soldiers had been captured and some had been killed as well.
So I ran out of the office and I called my boss in New York and I was like – they had been planning to send this one team to do a story on Christianity in Lebanon. I said, ‘You’re going to need to send more teams because there’s going to be a war.’
And sure enough, within twenty four hours, the Israelis had responded, bombing Beirut airport. And over the course of the next few weeks, they would go on to bomb most of the major infrastructure bridges, you know, all sorts of installations, both in Beirut, proper, southern Beirut, where the Hezbollah stronghold was, also in the southern part of the country.
And I tell you what was different – I mean, first of all, OK, so I’m alone basically in Beirut and trying to organize the logistics of getting all these teams into the country and making sure that we have diesel for the generator, drivers, vehicles, hotel rooms, all the stuff that comes like the sort of boring logistics of covering war that you never really hear about on the evening news. And then on top of that, I’m living in my apartment and my entire neighborhood has become a sort of haven for displaced people who are being pushed up from southern Lebanon, which is being heavily bombed.
And the difference for me, having covered Gaza for that couple of weeks, having covered Iraq at that stage for over a year, was that Lebanon was my home and they weren’t just displaced people. They were like friends. And they weren’t just random targets. They were places I knew. And that adds a different equation to things. And it gave me a real insight into why people get so frustrated with journalists a lot, particularly in the Middle East. You’re always angering someone with your coverage, right? Because they’re like, ‘You’re not understanding it from our perspective. You’re not seeing it from our perspective.’ Right. And I saw really and understood fully when you are so emotionally bound to a story that it is more difficult to be impartial about it, it is more difficult to have that distance and detachment that sort of allows us to do our jobs as journalists. And it was a challenge, and I think it was a real education for me. I was twenty-six years old, so it was a lot to learn in a short amount of time, but it was an extraordinary education into this profession.
MICHAEL MORELL: Clarissa, this is about the point in the story, I think, where you shift from producer to correspondent with a very busy six-week trial run in Baghdad. Can you tell us how that came about and what it was like to be in front of the camera for the first time?
CLARISSA WARD: Absolutely petrified. I mean, you know, I always had a strong sense that I wanted to be in front of the camera and I wanted to be telling those stories. But it is so intimidating when you’re starting out in this industry and you’re working with these incredible professionals who have been doing it for years, who make it look so easy and the idea of staring into a camera with a bright light in your eyes and trying to talk for 90 seconds with fluency about complex issues and make them comprehensive to an audience that you can’t see – it’s no small feat, especially when you’re twenty-six years old.
Anyway, I had been begging my boss for a long time to let me have a trial. Eventually, he agreed. He said you can go and do six weeks in Baghdad as a correspondent, but you have to go for Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Eve. So I was like, ‘Sign me up. That sounds great. What a wonderful way to spend the holiday season.’
So shortly after Christmas, Saddam Hussein was executed and it happened very quickly, much more quickly than people had expected. So quickly, in fact, that no one was able to get their sort of top-rank correspondents into Iraq, especially during the holiday season, very quickly. And so I spent something ridiculous like seventy-two hours basically standing in a live shot position with short breaks to drink water, eat food and sleep for a few hours here and there. It was completely petrifying, but it was the best entree one could have because it was baptism by fire. And you didn’t have time to be scared. You didn’t have time to be nervous. You just had to get on with it and keep talking and keep working the phones in between the live shots and keep trying to get more information and, you know, try to vet whatever video was coming through. And it was absolutely overwhelming, but also tremendously exciting because it gave me that sense of confidence that I’m on the right track and I have a lot to learn. But I can do this job and I feel in my gut that I am meant to do this job.
MICHAEL MORELL: There is nothing like baptism by fire to to prepare somebody for a career in something.
CLARISSA WARD: Agreed. So great.
MICHAEL MORELL: So then you move to ABC to be a correspondent in Moscow. So this is now your second time in Moscow. And I’m wondering how much Russia had changed since the first time you were there?
CLARISSA WARD: Hugely. Hugely. So the first time I had -well, I’d actually visited Russia twice before. I’d spent a few months there in 2002 and I visited for the first time in 1997. When I went back in 2007, I couldn’t believe it because suddenly Russia was very rich, or I should say a very small section of society was very rich and the whole culture had kind of shifted. Everything was about conspicuous, conspicuous consumption. And you would go out in Moscow and see Lamborghinis and Ferraris and all these designer stores and incredible opulence and wealth, which was such a giant leap from what I’d seen in 1997 when it was sort of gangsters with their various fiefdoms and old pensioners begging in the underpasses for enough money to buy macaroni and ketchup to eat. So it was an extraordinary shift.
And President Putin was well ensconced at that stage and he was slowly taking more and more power on. But the Russian people were kind of willing to cut a deal whereby as long as things were stable, as long as the money was growing, you know, and oil prices were sky high at the time. So these were good times for Russia. They were willing to turn the other way while this sort of systematic gobbling up of of power was really underway, and so it was a sleepy time for a news reporter, which is why I was probably lucky enough to get that job at twenty-seven.
But for me, it was an extraordinary opportunity to, first of all, spend more time in a country that I loved and found endlessly fascinating. And then I was lucky while I was there, because there was the Russian incursion into Georgia, which of course became a huge story. In 2008. And I was able to fly to Tbilisi and go down and cover the front lines in Gori. And and it was a real, again, baptism by fire. I had never covered a major war for a big U.S. network like ABC before. And the demands were so different because it was mostly packaging as opposed to live shots. But you had three big shows a day and you very rarely got to sleep and you’d spend half the time sort of honestly, just like bursting into tears because you’re so tired and so overwhelmed. But, you know, you’ve just got to keep doing it. And it’s highly stressful. And there were some times on the front line in Gori that were heavy shelling and quite frightening.
MICHAEL MORELL: So, Clarissa, what’s the difference between packaging and a live shot? Just for listeners who don’t understand.
CLARISSA WARD: It’s a good question. I’m speaking in television jargon. So a live shot is literally when I stand in front of the camera, you see me doing it a lot on CNN. And the anchor will say to me, ‘Clarissa, what’s the latest?’ And I will talk for 90 seconds about what the latest is. And, you know, and that’s important. It’s a big part of what we do.
Packaging, I would argue, is kind of where the the art form of TV news comes in. And that’s because what you’re doing is writing. Basically, you’re taking pictures usually, hopefully that you shoot on the ground, but you might also be taking pictures that other people have shot that have been made available to you through agencies. And you’re trying to tell a story. You’re trying to tell a story of a conflict or a culture or a people or a place. And you want to do it in a way whereby you’re not just boring people with a whole bunch of facts or geopolitical jargon that is totally inaccessible and seemingly irrelevant to people a million miles away, right, metaphorically speaking.
So you want to find characters, you want to find ways to make the story engaging and interesting and exciting and relevant. And you want to find ways for people in the US who maybe have never traveled to Georgia or to Lebanon or to wherever it is to connect with those characters and to feel empathy for them and to feel interested in their fate and in the circumstances that they find themselves in. And so for me, that’s the most exciting part of all of the work that we do as television journalists is going out on a shoot for the day. And then you come back at the end of it, you look at the pictures that your cameraman has shot and then you’re basically just trying to find the words to elevate those pictures, to make the conflict come to life, to make it real for people to make people care.
MICHAEL MORELL: So then you go to Beijing, where, among other things, you cover the earthquake and subsequent tsunami in Japan in 2011, and in this part of the book I read a line that really resonated, that really resonated with me because I experienced it in my career and I want to read it for our listeners and ask you to react to it. And the sentence you wrote is, “The better I got at my job, the higher my anxiety levels became. I felt a strong sense of pressure to do justice to the story.” Can you expand on that?
CLARISSA WARD: Yeah. I mean, imagine what I feel now that it’s like 10 years later. Exactly. Or what you feel. No, it’s because when you’re young and you’re starting out, you’re grateful for every opportunity, but you’re kind of learning and you’re the rookie and people give you the benefit of the doubt and you’re doing your best. But there isn’t that huge amount of pressure, right, because it’s like you’re still a kid, you’re working it out.
The more professional you become, the more experience you get, and the more you understand the gravity of what it really means to have the responsibility of telling someone’s story and have the responsibility of telling it in a way where you’re allowing for grace and dignity and fairness, but also in a responsible way, where you’re not putting them in danger, where you’re not putting yourselves in danger, where you’re not putting your crew in danger, you suddenly realize you are saddled with a huge amount of responsibility and the pressure is so high and the sleep is so few and far between. And you’ve got to work out – like in Japan, for example, the tsunami, we didn’t know where to get food half the time. We didn’t know where to sleep. We didn’t know where to go to the bathroom because we were in areas that were just completely shut down.
And then you’re also thinking, ‘How do I approach someone who’s just lost their entire family,’ in a way that’s respectful in a way that doesn’t come across as sort of cavalier or arrogant or strident. And, you know, for me, that’s something that’s really important in the field, is that I do feel like I’m a little bit of an ambassador or a diplomat on some level, too, and I’m representing my country in my profession. And so it’s a constant challenge to find the strength and the wherewithal in some of the most frustrating and dangerous and difficult situations to have the patience and the sensitivity to make sure that you treat subjects and their stories with the respect that they deserve.
MICHEL MORELL: So, Clarissa, now we get to Syria, where you spent a number of years focused on that war-torn country. And the stories you tell of that time are all absolutely fascinating and riveting. And I can’t wait for everyone to have a chance to read them. But I’m wondering if you could tell us about your friendship with Austin Tice, how it came about and what happened to him.
CLARISSA WARD: So Austin first contacted me on Twitter and he asked me to send him a direct message. And I was like, ‘Who is this guy?’ He reached out to me because I had already gone into Syria a couple of times, first with activists and then secondly with rebels, and reported live on the ground from inside rebel held territory, which at that time had really not been done much at all, if at all. And he told me that he was a freelance journalist and that he had entered Syria through Turkey. I had spent some time in Idlib, had made his way all the way down to Homs and was now on the outskirts of Damascus in a place called Yabrud. And we started talking back and forth all the time, we were messaging eight, 10 times a day sometimes.
Because it’s very rare in this industry – like you can talk to your crew and your team, obviously, about some of the emotional stuff. But for the most part, you’re trying to maintain that professionalism and keep everybody focused on the job at hand. And as much as you want to talk about it with your family and friends and your loved ones outside of this profession, that’s hard, too, because they just don’t really have a frame of reference. And so Austin and I shared this really deep love of Syria, a really profound sense of being moved, and feeling very emotionally attached to the story of Syria, to the suffering of the people there. I think it’s fair to say that we felt huge sympathy towards this revolution or this uprising, depending on how you choose to characterize it.
And it was painful for us covering Syria and seeing people die as we both had and and caring a lot about this story and wanting to be able to effect change as a result of the coverage. And so we really bonded over it and we were just messaging all the time. And I noticed that Austin, because he was he was a former Marine captain, Georgetown law student – incredibly smart. I mean, who else goes as a freelance journalist to Syria on their first-ever assignment and within two weeks is filing for McClatchy and The Washington Post? I mean, Austin is extraordinary.
And he also, though, by virtue because has a military background, I think felt a little bit invincible. And as a freelancer, there’s always a little bit of a danger because you don’t have that editor every day saying, ‘You can’t do this, you can’t do that. You have to come back. You that’s too dangerous. That’s too difficult.’ Austin didn’t really have that. And so I noticed as our friendship went on over the course of a couple of months, he was taking more risks. He was doing things that I thought were really, really dangerous.
And in the back of my mind, I always held him to a higher standard because of his military background and because I just believed that he was just operating on a different level. And I realize now I feel frustration and a little bit of anger with myself for not being a bit more forceful and outspoken in telling him to, you know, cut out some of the antics. I did finally have luck, though. He had a girlfriend who was going to come and visit him. I said, ‘You know, you really need to leave the country. You should try to get out for a while and take a break and reassess.’ And so he organized to go and meet his girlfriend in Lebanon. He was going to cross through the border from Syria, which was going to create problems no matter what, because he wouldn’t have had a visa stamp from Turkey and Lebanon. But whatever. I just wanted him to be outside of Syria because I was so worried about some of the stuff he was doing and he’d actually managed to get into Damascus and he’d run through a checkpoint and the whole thing was getting crazy.
So as luck would have it, I was actually also sent to Lebanon on assignment and I was supposed to meet up with them. I spoke to him on his birthday and I spoke to a couple of days later, he was about to leave and he said, you know, ‘If things go according to plan, which they rarely do, we’ll be knocking back cocktails in a couple of days.’ And that’s the last email that I ever received from Austin. And I waited days and days and I had this sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. And then his colleague from McClatchy flew from Cairo to Beirut, Nancy Youssef. And we were just working around the clock, day in and day out, trying to find out what had happened to him, combing through pictures of massacres to see if we could identify his body. And it was honestly so devastating and so scary. And then ultimately, we found out that he had been likely captured by the regime and he’s been held ever since.
And to this day, nobody really knows exactly where he is or I should say it’s not publicly known exactly where he is or what his situation is. His parents, Marc and Debbie Tice, who are an absolute inspiration and some of the bravest and most determined people I know, continue to fight every day to get more clarity and to get their son back home. And I still like to hope that I will finally get to meet Austin at some point – because we never met in person. This entire friendship, deep though it was, was all online. And, yeah, it was the beginning of a really dark period because from there, Jim Foley, who was a friend of mine, was killed. Peter Kassig was a friend of mine, was killed. And I think all of us who covered Syria closely just went through the emotional wringer, losing so many people that we loved.
MICHAEL MORELL: Clarissa, can you tell us about an email that you sent to Ben Rhodes?
CLARISSA WARD: Yeah, I mean, you know, I will cop to the fact that I think I crossed the line in Syria. I became so emotionally involved and I was crushed by the U.S. response and the U.S. policy – not that I was advocating for intervention, but I just felt that the U.S. policy and I know, Michael, you and I have discussed this at times in the past, that I felt that there wasn’t really a strong U.S. policy, that we had said ‘Assad must go’ and then we had done nothing to make him go. We had said chemical weapons were a red line and then that red line was crossed and there wasn’t really anything in terms of real repercussions.
And then obviously, once the Russians got involved in a very official way and were carrying out these bombing sorties and my driver was killed and I just was so destroyed and so fed up.
And I wrote Ben Rhodes an email to his official White House account. And I said, ‘Dear Ben, I hope you’re sleeping soundly as Aleppo burns. At least we have the Russians to sort it out. Best wishes, Clarissa.’
And as I sent it, there was a voice saying, you know, ‘This is really not a very professional thing to do, Clarissa,’ but I think you’re allowed in the course of your career one story or, you know, where you can be a human being as well. And I just got sick of hearing the Obama administration try to pretend that this policy was some kind of a stroke of genius and that it was a sort of very well thought-out and intentional policy, when I knew from having interviewed Hillary Clinton when she was Secretary of State, from having had previous conversations with Ben Rhodes, I knew that this wasn’t a well thought-out policy, but rather a kind of series of improvised decisions to try to avert, you know, getting sucked into a quagmire.
And I fully understand and respect the desire, especially in a post-Iraq world, to avoid getting sucked into a quagmire. The thing that struck me about it, that sort of grated and that I heard endlessly from every Syrian I would talk to was this idea of, you know, what the purported goals of the U.S. was versus the reality of what U.S. policy was and the huge chasm in between. And, of course, keeping in mind that this came on the back of Libya and a moral hazard had been created. And people believe that if they marched into a hail of bullets, they were getting a no fly zone. I’m not saying that’s right. I’m just saying that’s how people felt. And there was never a kind of honest reckoning where it was like, ‘Actually, no one’s coming to save you. We’re not getting involved in this for very good reasons and we can’t. And you’re on your own.’
MICHAEL MORELL: Yeah, well, you know, there were plenty of people sitting in the Sit Room who shared your deep frustration with the U.S. policy response or more accurately, the lack of one. So you weren’t alone.
The author is Clarissa Ward. The book is ‘On All Fronts: The Education of a Journalist.’ Clarissa, thank you so much for joining us.
CLARISSA WARD: Thank you so much. I’ve really loved our conversation. I appreciate your time.