’60 Minutes’ co-editor goes off the record

BY JUAN ALBAN

The Harvard Law School Forum hosted Steve Kroft, co-editor of the popular television program “60 Minutes,” last Wednesday for an “Off the Record” discussion. The discussion turned into a live example of its title, as Kroft carefully set the ground rules for such holding a conversation.

“If I’m not behind the podium but sitting on the table, you cannot quote me on anything I say,” he said.

Fortunately for the inquiring HLS mind, plenty of captivating material from the experienced journalist came from behind the podium.

Kroft said he likes the idea of speaking off the record as a journalist because it can “clear the mind and conscience.” You can freely tell your version of the truth without having your name associated with it, he remarked. At times, such an association could subject a reporter to public humiliation or end a career. As for cinema hit “The Insider,” Kroft described it as “pretty good” and “more accurate than [he] expected,” yet “unabashedly twisted” for the purpose of entertainment with regard to minor facts.

Kroft finds being a journalist fascinating, but that excitement comes at a cost. On the one hand, Kroft has witnessed famines, wars and natural disasters; he has “hung out” with movie stars and played golf with Clint Eastwood; and he has interviewed presidents and terrorists. On the other hand, Kroft spends about 120 days of the year on the road away from his family, with a significant amount of that time in airplanes and hotels. As for the worst place in the world to lose your luggage? Anchorage, Alaska. “If it doesn’t arrive, it is either in Tokyo or London,” Kroft said.

He also complained about the unfriendly nature of working in New York City, thereby sending a warning to those heading to New York law firms. During his first day on the job, the vice president of CBS left him a phone message. Expecting a warm welcome, Kroft instead listened to a warning to not get too used to his office, because two senior correspondents wanted it.

Kroft said his favorite stories are what he calls the “secret bookcase ones” – those that one would expect to read about only in fiction, but that occur in everyday life, hidden from unscrupulous eyes. One such story stemmed from a lawyer, who walked into Kroft’s office and described a recent case.

The lawyer had represented a family whose baby was killed by a stray bullet that flew through a wall in their El Paso motel room. The shot, as it turned out, came from an employee of a Dallas-based corporation, E-Systems, who accidentally shot off his semi-automatic weapon while cleaning it.

The employee and four others had been in El Paso “in the course of their duties” for a $2-billion-a-year company, but neither the lawyer nor reporters could discover what the men were doing in El Paso.

E-Systems, it turned out, produces vision and listening devices that are used by secret service agencies and terrorists. Considered “the best at what it does,” E-Systems is an extremely secretive company, despite its listing in the Fortune 500 and some 1600 shareholders. The CIA, DIA and NSA are known clients. Yet, the government refuses to admit that the company even exists.

Corporate information about the circumstances surrounding the shooting was deemed “classified.” But when the judge allowed cameras into the court room, E-Systems settled the lawsuit for $4.2 million.

E-Systems had been involved in a similarly eerie lawsuit involving an air-freight business that was making covert shipments to Vietnam and Laos for the Air America Company, Kroft notes. Air America had been a CIA-front company that E-Systems purchased after a scandal broke out in 1975. At the conclusion of the Vietnam War, the shipments ceased, and a manager of the air freight business brought suit.

After the CIA “paid a visit” to the judge overseeing the case, attorneys were prohibited from making inquiries about the relationship between E-Systems and the government. Kroft called it a “secret secrecy order.” Kroft told this entire story, albeit in vague terms, behind the podium and “on the record.”

Kroft is in his twelfth season as co-editor of “60 Minutes” and in his twenty-first year as a correspondent for CBS News. He has twice earned the prestigious George Foster Peabody Award for “60 Minutes” reports. He has also earned seven Emmy Awards, one of which included a 1992 interview with then Gov. Bill Clinton and his wife, Hillary. The interview has been cited as one of the defining moments of that presidential election.

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