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.”

After 9/11, when we were writing critical stories about detentions and interrogations, people were accusing us of being traitors and putting the country at risk. Some said we should be in jail because we published classified information. But think about that: we have this great case of Iraq where we didn’t perhaps try hard enough to figure out all the doubts there were. All that is classified. So if you expect the press to do its job, it can only do that job in the classified world, because that’s where the government has everything about Iraq’s WMD. And everything that has to do with counterterrorism. If you don’t get inside, you aren’t going to get any kind of story that is real. I think these days people understand that a little more than they did right after 9/11.

Soon after 9/11, my editors asked me to do the CIA beat. I thought it couldn’t be that different from the military, but it’s totally different. I spent the first year, no kidding, beating my head against the wall thinking I haven’t gotten to the right person. I thought there must be some secret button here that I’ve got to push in order to get inside. I was convinced I could meet top undercover people. I was convinced that I would someday be taken with them on a mission like I had been with the military. I didn’t quite get it. And finally, Bill Harlow, who is a good public affairs person in that he understood what the media was about, yelled at me and said, “Damn it, don’t you understand? This is a secret organization.” I know now that there’s no way I’m going to go on a mission with the CIA. There’s no way that I’m going to have extended conversations with people who get polygraphed all the time to see if they’ve had unauthorized meetings with the media. And I haven’t found anybody yet who lays out anything. Instead, it’s a huge puzzle that you just have to put together little by little.

A Lot of Hate Mail

“Stress and duress techniques”—that was the key phrase that made the story I did with Bart Gellman in 2002 work. That label was like the Christmas tree that you could hang everything on. And it’s odd how something that’s a term of art can act as the tree that can support all the other real facts. They’re imprecise facts, or they’re quotes that aren’t clear enough to mean everything without a phrase like that.

I found this source who was a military interrogator and had been involved. He described to me what the techniques were called and somewhat about what they involve. So then we knew that there were people being interrogated in an unusual way. And they’re being detained in an unusual way. There were so many questions: What are the rules for that? Are there rules for that? Is everything ad hoc? Both the agency and the military directed me to the White House and they, of course, denied anything wrong was going on. We’ve been following the rules; the rules work, they said. There’s a quote in the story saying that we abide by the Geneva Conventions. Well, they had a completely strange interpretation of what that meant.

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.