Mike McIntire joined the New York Times’s national investigative desk during the 2008 presidential campaign. He has also covered City Hall for the Times, where he has worked for the past seven years. Prior to that, McIntire served as an editor at the Hartford Courant.

CJR staff writer Liz Cox Barrett spoke with McIntire about his coverage of campaign finance issues, particularly his recent reporting on the anonymously funded “shadow army of benignly titled nonprofit groups,” in his words, spending millions to influence this midterm election. This is an edited transcript of that conversation.

Earlier this month, you wrote a Week in Review piece in which you took readers along with you as you tried and ultimately failed to find out much of anything about who is behind the 501(c)4 group, the Coalition to Protect Seniors. Can you describe how that story came to be?

I had done a piece which ran on the front page about a week before that that looked at a different group, Americans for Job Security. The genesis for that is we wanted to take a look at some of these third party groups that are spending phenomenal amounts of money in the election and try to figure out a little more about how they work and who is behind them. That particular story was an attempt to show the mechanics of [one group], what’s going on behind the scenes, and it essentially showed that [the group] was run out of a Republican consulting shop.

So that story ran and got a lot of attention and the thought from the people at the Week in Review was, why don’t we try to do a piece that shows the difficulty in getting at who is behind these groups? That’s how it started. OK, let’s pick a group and do what I think the average person might try to do if they were so inclined: just use whatever tools are publicly available to try to figure it out. And as you pointed out, it didn’t ultimately answer the question.

How can reporters figure out who is behind these groups and what their motivations might be?

It’s hard. And part of the reason is simply that the donors that gravitate to these groups do so because they want to remain anonymous. Unless you have subpoena power there’s no way to force these organizations to reveal anything about their finances other than what they have to reveal to the IRS, which is an annual tax return that does not include details of their donors.

What you’re left doing is trying to use one of the two tools available to reporters, documents and people. To the extent there is a paper trail, you can get some broad outlines of who may be behind these groups. The Week in Review piece I did about the Coalition to Protect Seniors, it did sort of bring me right to the doorstep of health insurance companies. It looked like if you were able to take the next step, you probably would find that somehow, to some extent, some health insurance providers are involved with that organization. But as I said, the paper trail only takes you so far, so then you also have to talk to people who might know something about it. That’s tough. Unless they have an incentive to help you, you’re only going to get so far.

The short answer is it is very, very difficult to crack that veneer of secrecy that covers these organizations. Because that’s exactly the reason they’re set up the way they are, to keep those details secret.

In your Week in Review piece, you concluded that “it is clearly going to take a lot more work to see through an organization that is about as transparent as a dirty diaper.” Are you doing anything further on that, any “more work?”

I’ve kind of moved on to some other things. First of all, you kind of have to pick your target as to how much energy you’re going to expend and there are so many groups out there doing this type of thing. You probably want to look at the ones that are most effective in terms of the money they’re spending. Coalition to Protect Seniors, although $400,000 seems like a lot (that’s the amount they’d spent when I wrote about them), it really doesn’t compare to what some other organizations are spending, millions upon millions. We have to kind of choose where to focus our resources. Right now I’m looking at some others.

Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.