Washington Post reporter Dana Priest says she has always had an insatiable curiosity. At age six, she liked climbing the fences between houses in her neighborhood, looking into people’s backyards to see what was going on. In high school, Priest walked through the “Do Not Enter” doors at an airport, just to see what was behind them. “People knew I was there, but nothing happened,” she recalls. “That’s typical of so much. Just go through it and nothing happens.” Although she interned at three different newspapers during college, Priest wasn’t sure she wanted to be a journalist; she went to graduate school at Columbia University to study international relations. But that summer, she got an internship on the foreign desk at the Post. And, more or less, you know the rest of the story. The winner of numerous journalism awards, Priest is an indefatigable investigator who has unearthed stories of the highest impact, including a series of stories that revealed a network of secret “black site” prisons set up around the world by the CIA for top Al Qaeda captives, for which she was awarded the 2006 Pulitzer for beat reporting; and the stories about neglect of wounded soldiers at the Walter Reed Medical Center, for which she shared the 2008 Pulitzer for public service with co-writer and reporter Anne Hull and photographer Michel du Cille. Jill Drew interviewed Priest at her home in June, as she was finishing her latest book, Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State, which she co-authored with William M. Arkin, and which was published in September by Little, Brown and Company.

Who Elected You?

You find stories everywhere. Once, I wanted to do a series on the integration of women in the military. It was 1998. Legislation had passed that allowed women to work at lower levels, but with great barriers to a lot of things, including combat. I did a story about aides-de-camp, which are young officers, up and coming, who do everything for general officers, four-star usually. I wanted to do one on a female aide, and how that really worked out, because they’ve got to travel with this male general. If they’re a guy, they sleep in the same room. I thought that would be a way to really talk about the cultural challenges of integrating genders.

I was following her around. We went into a briefing for the Secretary of the Army in a big room that looks kind of like something out of Dr. Strangelove. On the wall there was a map that showed where all US forces were that day. They were marked with little flags that were of a particular color. In my head, I was thinking, “What are we doing in Kuwait? What are we doing in Indonesia?” I was supposed to be there looking at the aide, but I was scribbling as hard as I could with a total blank face, all these different locations and all these flags. The name on some of the flags was JCET. I made a beeline over to a couple of sources to figure out what that was. They didn’t know either.

Eventually I learned it was Joint Combined Exercise Training. It became another series about what the Special Forces were doing all over the world, including in countries where Congress said you cannot have military relations because these countries abuse human rights or something. That was my entry into this whole secret world of national security, which I became obsessed with. People who work in the secret world are very thin-skinned. Partly it’s because they never have to deal with the public. And that got me thinking, if they’re in their cocoon, how good are they going to be at knowing how the world operates? We rely on them in some odd and disproportionate ways.

I do a fair amount of public speaking to military audiences, and when I talk to them about publishing classified information, they get really uptight and angry at the idea that the decision is ours. We don’t live in a country with prior censorship. And so the first reaction—not everybody, but some people—is, “Who elected you?” And I can say, “Well, no one elected us, but the Constitution sets it up that way.”

Jill Drew is a 2009-2010 Encore Fellow at CJR. She was an associate editor at The Washington Post until August 2009. For nine of her fourteen years at the newspaper, she was assistant managing editor for financial news.