A delegation of the Committee to Protect Journalists was in Moscow recently--a high-octane one, led by Wall Street Journal managing editor Paul Steiger and former Time Inc. editor-in-chief Norman Pearlstein. There were meetings with Russian officials and journalists, but this was not one of your standard feel-good cultural exchange projects.
The subject was--and is--murder. Thirteen journalists have been killed in Russia since 2000, in a brutal and systematic campaign to snuff out free speech and terrorize the former Soviet republics. One of the slain journalists was Paul Klebnikov, an American who was gunned down on the streets of Moscow in July 2004.
Now I'm realistic, or perhaps a bit cynical. I don't expect most people in this country to be too surprised or even upset about any of this. After all, this is Russia--the country that almost blew us to bits during the Cold War, and where American citizens live and work in an atmosphere of fear, violence and intimidation.
Still, you should care a great deal--you should be screaming and hollering, in fact--about the slaying of Paul Klebnikov, a brilliant investigative journalist who was editor of the Russian edition of Forbes magazine. This brazen murder, which has never been solved, was a crime against America as much as it was against Paul, his family and his information-hungry Russian readers.
The time has arrived for our government to initiate an investigation, with the aim of apprehending and prosecuting Paul's murderers wherever they may be.
That could open up a hornet's nest of international complications, which is why a formal U.S. investigation has not been launched. But failure to act would play into the hands of the terrorists who carried out this murder. Let's review for a moment why Paul was killed, and why it requires a strong U.S. response that--for understandable reasons--has not yet been forthcoming.
Unlike the other brave Russian journalists who were murdered, Paul's audience was as much this country as it was Russia. He wrote books that shaped American perceptions of Russia's new elite, in addition to his groundbreaking Russian-language investigative reporting.
At the time of his death, Paul was believed to have been investigating a complex web of money laundering involving a Chechen reconstruction fund, reaching into the centers of power in the Kremlin and involving elements of organized crime and the FSB (the former KGB).
Paul was murdered to prevent you from knowing about any of this. His murder was intended to send a message: No one, not even an American citizen, is immune to the forces in Russia who believe that a free press impinges on their license to steal.
Paul's murder was, in other words, an act of terrorism, and it needs to be treated as such by this country.
By law, this country can prosecute the murderer of a U.S. citizen overseas when the U.S. attorney general certifies that the murder "was intended to coerce, intimidate or retaliate against a government or a civilian population." That's as neat a description of Paul's slaying as I have ever found.
Ironically, the Russian authorities--for their own purposes--agree that it was an act of terrorism. They've maintained that Paul's death was ordered by Khozh-Akhmed Nukhaev, a Chechen separatist leader and organized crime boss who is already branded a terrorist and wanted by Moscow.
Nukhaev is an obvious suspect because he was the subject of a book that Paul wrote, Conversation With a Barbarian--a critical one, as its title suggests. But Nukhaev is just too convenient a suspect, in the view of many Americans and Russians familiar with the case. For one thing, he is, conveniently, missing.
Two Chechens were put on trial as the actual triggermen in Paul's murder, and both were acquitted. Prosecutors appealed, and a new trial is set for Feb. 15. However, there is no assurance that the defendants will actually bother to attend the trial. Both were freed after the acquittal, and one is believed to have left the country. That alone makes the chances of obtaining justice at a new trial questionable at best.
Russian authorities have maintained that the gunmen were tasked to their mission by Nukhaev. However, Chechen gunmen and killers have been known to perform "muscle" work outside of Chechnya.
The first task of any American investigation would be to clear up the question of Nukhaev's culpability.
An American interagency group has been monitoring the Russian investigation, and that could be the nucleus for a formal U.S. investigation that would call on the resources of the intelligence community. But there must be a free and open exchange of information between agencies--and that, apparently, has not been happening on the crucial issue of Nukhaev.
Scott Armstrong, a veteran investigative journalist and founder of the National Security Archive, who has been following the Klebnikov case, has been told by law enforcement and intelligence sources that significant intelligence on Nukhaev and on Chechen hoodlum gangs has not been shared with law enforcement.
The U.S. needs to resolve its interagency differences and use the full resources of the intelligence community to determine if indeed Nukhaev ordered Klebnikov killed. If he did, we should find him, arrest him and prosecute him. If not, we should find out who did--and put him behind bars if Russian authorities are unwilling to do so.
Obviously, this will cause (to put it mildly) complications in our relations with Russia, which has resented even the private pressure that has been applied in the Klebnikov case.
One might also argue that it sets a precedent whereby other nations may seek to prosecute Americans under their definition of terrorism. All that needs to be taken into consideration, as does the impact of our relations with Russia. But these factors are, I believe, outweighed by our own national interest in preserving the safety of American journalists and businessmen living and working in Russia.
The parallels between Klebnikov's slaying and the murder of Don Bolles, an Arizona journalist slain in 1976, are becoming increasingly apparent. Bolles was killed for probing the mobsters and land-fraud schemes that plagued the Southwest in the mid-1970s.
The Bolles murder resulted in the creation of the Arizona Project, a consortium of journalists that was created to continue Bolles' work. Scott Armstrong and I, along with Richard Behar and others, are members of Project Klebnikov, which has similar aims in continuing Paul's legacy. (This column, incidentally, speaks only for myself, not for the project.)
Thanks to dedicated and relentless police work, Bolles' killers were eventually brought to justice. No such outcome is likely in Russia, because Russia today is more akin to the Arizona of the 1870s than the Arizona of the 1970s--replete with robber barons, overnight fortunes, corrupt sheriffs and gunslingers for hire.
That is a domestic affair within Russia, I guess--but not when terrorism against Americans is involved.
Our government has the tools it needs to speak back to the hoodlums who sent that message to America 30 months ago. Time to use them.