Hunting a Dangerous Story in Kuwait, CBS's Bob Simon Goes M.I.A.

updated 02/11/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/11/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

When it came to covering war, CBS correspondent Bob Simon never wanted to run with the pack. And so it was on Jan. 21 that Simon and his three-man crew headed off into a remote area of northeastern Saudi Arabia on a risky mission: to be the first American broadcast team to film over the border in Iraqi-occupied Kuwait since the gulf war began. "He wanted to be the first," says a CBS staffer. "He's a very aggressive reporter, and he wanted to do a stand-up in Kuwait." Three days later a Saudi military patrol found the crew's beige Toyota Landcruiser abandoned on a deserted road right at the frontier, still on the Saudi side. The doors of the vehicle were open, and the keys were inside, along with some spare television equipment and $6,000 in cash. There was no sign of a struggle, just four sets of footprints heading in the direction of Kuwait. Saudi military trackers followed the trail as far as they could, up to the point where it vanished near the Saudi-Kuwait border.

The mysterious disappearance, in addition to becoming news itself, has cast a pall over CBS News. "Right now, we're trying to to cover a war and, at the same time, find someone we respect and love," says Simon's friend and colleague CBS anchor Dan Rather. "Bob is on my mind every second of the day." In his 24-year career with CBS, Simon, 49, has won six Emmys and is widely regarded by his peers as one of the best and most audacious reporters around. "There's a small, distinguished band of foreign correspondents who stand above the others," says NBC anchor Tom Brokaw. "Bob's part of that band."

Despite the obvious risks involved in their mission, Simon and his producer, Peter Bluff, 47, were too savvy and experienced, say CBS officials, to have tried anything foolhardy. (The other two in the crew, Miami-based cameraman Roberto Alvarez, 37, and his sound man. Juan Caldera, 31, were also seasoned veterans.) Simon liked to joke that he could say "Don't shoot" in eight languages, and he was hardly a stranger to combat. Born in the Bronx and raised on Long Island, he joined CBS in 1967. Within four years he went from being a cub reporter in the New York office to a correspondent in Saigon, where he covered the final years of the American involvement in South Vietnam. Since then Simon has mostly roamed the world for CBS, plying his trade in hot spots like El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala, South Korea and the Philippines. Most recently he has been the network's chief Middle East correspondent. At the time of his disappearance, his French-born wife, Francoise, 40ish, was visiting New York City, where their daughter, Tanya, 20, attends Columbia University. A deeply cultivated man, Simon is an opera buff and a voracious reader of fiction and politics.

As part of their search effort, CBS officials have directly contacted Iraqi authorities, who say that they have no knowledge of Simon and his crew. The network has even persuaded Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev to make further inquiries with the Baghdad government, which was once a close ally of Moscow's. CBS remains hopeful that the four men are safe in the hands of either the Kuwaiti underground or an Iraqi military unit that may be out of touch with headquarters because of disrupted communications.

How could a reporter so skilled in dealing with danger have made what appears to have been a critical misstep? Network colleagues can only speculate. Simon was especially vocal in his frustration at the reporting restrictions that the U.S. military has imposed on journalists in Saudi Arabia, but Rather staunchly denies any suggestion that CNN's widely heralded, splashy coverage of the gulf war could have spurred Simon to recklessness in search of a scoop. "With the ratings, Bob's been around long enough to know that they come and go," says Rather. "The only pressure Bob felt was to excel." That, of course, can be the most powerful—and dangerous—motivation of all. CBS producer Peter Schweitzer recalls talking to Simon once about how, even when care and caution are exercised, there are inescapable dangers that sometimes go with serious reporting. "He told me," says Schweitzer, "that in Vietnam you'd just go down the road, wherever it took you, to get the story." This time, a brave and determined reporter may have gone down one road too many.

—Bill Hewitt, J.D. Podolsky in New York City

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