The US State Department has accused CNN of "distasteful" reporting after it used the contents of a private diary kept by slain US ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens without the consent of his family.
Senior State Department aide Philippe Reines told reporters in a statement over the weekend that the television network engaged in "atrocious behavior" in making use of the late envoy's diary as it reported on events leading up to his death at the hands of militants who stormed the US consulate in Benghazi earlier this month.
Reines said CNN removed the journal from the US mission in Libya after the deadly attack, which also killed three other US diplomatic staff, and then went on to use information obtained from it against the express wishes of the diplomat's family.
Reines said the family told a network executive in a conference call they they did not want the journal used until they had had an opportunity to review its contents.
CNN said it felt the public had a right to know what it had learned from multiple sources about the fears of a terrorist threat before the attack on the consulate.
"We reached out to the family of Ambassador Stevens within hours of retrieving the journal and returned it through a third party, within less than 24 hours from the time we found it. Out of respect to the family, we have not quoted from or shown the journal," it said.
What CNN is "not owning up to is reading and transcribing Chris's diary well before bothering to tell the family or anyone else that they took it from the site of the attack," Reines wrote in a lengthy memo sent to reporters on Sunday.
"When they finally did tell them, they completely ignored the wishes of the family, and ultimately broke their pledge made to them only hours after they witnessed the return to the Unites States of Chris's remains," he said.
Reines cited reports by CNN last week claiming it had obtained "exclusive information about the climate that led up" to the storming of the US diplomatic post in Libya.
Specifically, the network said, it had learned from "a source" that Stevens in the months before his death "talked about being worried about what he called the never-ending security threats, specifically in Benghazi," CNN news anchor Anderson Cooper said in one report last week.
"The source (is) telling us that the ambassador specifically mentioned the rise in Islamic extremism, the growing Al-Qaeda presence in Libya, and said that he was on an Al-Qaeda hit list," Cooper said.
What CNN did not reveal, Reines said, is that Stevens' journal was the basis for much of that reporting.
"Whose first instinct is to remove from a crime scene the diary of a man killed along with three other Americans serving our country, read it, transcribe it, email it around your newsroom for others to read, and only when their curiosity is fully satisfied thinks to call the family or notify the authorities?" Reines wrote.
He added that only in subsequent reporting did Cooper reveal that "some of that information was found in a personal journal of Ambassador Stevens in his handwriting."
"At their request, we returned that journal to them. We reported what we found newsworthy in the ambassador's writings. Our reporting followed up on what we found newsworthy, as I said, in the ambassador's writings," Cooper said in a report on Friday.
Reines said, however, that Stevens's relatives had specifically requested that CNN not issue any reports based on the journal or even make mention of its existence, and that CNN had reneged on its agreements to abide by the family's wishes.
CNN issued a statement over the weekend defending its actions.
"The reason CNN ultimately reported Friday on the existence of the journal was because leaks to media organizations incorrectly suggested CNN had not quickly returned the journal, which we did," the television network wrote.
The network's position appears not to have mollified officials at State Department, however.
"Given the truth of how this was handled, CNN patting themselves on the back is disgusting," Reines said.
The Daily Star