When Lara Logan of CBS News stepped before a packed Chicago ballroom last week, she quickly corrected the newspaper editor who introduced her by noting she’d warned him not to “screw up” the introduction.
No, she told the annual lunch of the Better Government Association, she asked him not to “fuck it up.”
That jest set the tone for a provocative address before 1,100 in which the foreign correspondent and 60 Minutes star skewered American policy in Afghanistan and Libya, called for a ramped-up military campaign against terrorists, and criticized the Obama administration and others for both underestimating the Taliban’s strength in Afghanistan and for tolerating Pakistan’s obvious coddling of terrorists killing American soldiers.
The Taliban and al Qaeda, she made clear, “want to destroy the West and us,” and we must fight fire with fire, She appeared to leave the assembled alternatively riveted and just a bit troubled by a critique with interventionist implications clearly drawn from her reporting.
As one nonprofit executive, a former magazine editor, put it the next day when asked to describe her speech: “Shoot ’em, bomb ’em, fuck ’em. They will kill your children.”
There is a rich history of foreign correspondents being outspoken and passionate in offering political commentary, especially those who have been caught in harm’s way. Logan herself was a victim of brutality; in 2011 the South Africa native was beaten and sexually assaulted by a mob in Cairo’s Tahrir Square while she covered the demonstrations prompted by President Hosni Mubarak’s resignation. Such a harrowing experience would surely impact even the most politically cautious of journalists. Still, the sharp advocacy from such a prominent network reporter caught some in the Chicago crowd by surprise.
Logan’s address was linked to a significant dispatch for 60 Minutes two days earlier in which she chronicled growing terrorist attacks on American soldiers in Afghanistan. She showed a portion to the audience.
It included the top U.S. commander, Gen. John Allen, voicing frustration over attacks by Afghan troops whom we’ve trained and President Hamid Karzai declaring that terrorist attacks are only increasing as America winds down its presence. Allen was also publicly candid, in ways predecessors arguably have not been, about his obvious chagrin over his battlefield enemies having what Logan called “complete freedom of movement inside Pakistan and with the blessing of the Pakistanis.”
In front of the Chicago audience, Logan contended that the terrorist presence in Afghanistan is continually understated. She scoffed at the numbers routinely used by many in the government and think-tank communities to describe the Taliban’s presence in country.
At the start, she lauded her 60 Minutes boss, executive producer Jeff Fager, for providing the admonition that she seek the facts on the story and let them lead her to a conclusion, rather than go out to prove a preordained thesis.
But by the end of her speech, it was obvious that her views are passionate and in some parts unequivocal, in ways that bothered at least some current and former journalists. Said one former reporter and editor in the crowd: “Clearly one tough reporter, but seemingly scarred by all of this. It was totally depressing. Worrying, too. And a call for an amped war on terror.”
While discussing what she believes to be the knowingly understated claim of the Taliban presence in Afghanistan, she said it is absurd to compare Afghanistan to Vietnam. In the latter war, the Viet Cong constituted an insurgency willing to live and let live as long as the U.S. got out of their country.
Al Qaeda is not an insurgency, is driven by ideology and wants to kill us all, on our own soil if they must and even if we pull all our troops out of Afghanistan, Logan said.
She likened the murder of Christopher Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya, to the 2000 suicide bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen that killed 17 American sailors. She argued that it could well be a precursor to another terrorist attack on the U.S. Indeed, the federal 9/11 Commission did find clear common denominators among a variety of terrorist actions against Americans, including the Cole bombing and the subsequent World Trade Center attacks.
“The 9/11 attacks were a shock, but they should not have come as a surprise,” the commission wrote. “Islamist extremists had given plenty of warning that they meant to kill Americans indiscriminately and in large numbers.”
Her substantial military and terrorism reporting helps explain Logan deriding the notion of the FBI investigating the Stevens murder, in her mind thus making it look like a routine crime rather than an act of terrorism. She suggested the need for a military action against terrorists in Libya, in the process generating some applause.
“I hope to God,” she said, that we will now take action in Libya.
“While I certainly appreciate her journalistic zeal and courage, I was taken aback, way back,” said David Orr, a liberal Democrat and longtime Cook County clerk.
“She seemed to be saying we should be mounting major attacks, and I thought that was concerning. Personally, I was stunned to hear that from a journalist and disappointed if she believes the answers to problems we face are more military actions.”
A few others contacted later demurred from that view, contending that Logan was, as one prominent corporate lawyer put it, “right on” when it came to her basic analysis, if not her proposed remedy.
Asked for comment, a CBS News spokesperson said: "Lara's speech, just like her report, speaks for itself.”