Dana Priest wants to show you how the world works

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.”

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.

That story got a typical response for that period of time: a lot of hate mail. We weren’t saying that they were taking innocent people. We were saying they were taking people they thought were terrorists. And so people in the public thought, “Well, good for us. And bad for you, for criticizing that.” The reaction was surprising. But there was a really supportive reaction inside the paper. My colleagues would come up and say, “This is what newspapers are all about.” It made me feel great. The editors were so supportive that sometimes they were worried about me more than I felt worried. I did have to go to the security people on a regular basis—nothing that I really felt unsafe about, but some people did cross the line with threats and phone calls and things like that. Some people in Congress did name names and call for imprisonment. I think I was the most offended when someone who didn’t know me said I was a traitor. I had a kind of dumb, naïve reaction, but I was like, “We’ve never talked. How do you know I’m a traitor? How do you know anything about me?”

I’m not motivated by whether the prisons are right or wrong. I’m motivated by the fact that they were very unconventional—outside of the conventional interpretations of our more treasured laws. And because of that, the public should at least know what’s happening and be able to debate it. And if then the body politic decides that’s who we are now, who am I to say we’re not?

I couldn’t let the story go after the first one was published because now I had a million questions. A lot of my energy was focused on this secret regime. Who’s doing it? Who says they can do it? Who says they can’t do it? Where is the authority from? Is it legal? Of course it’s legal, in the sense that someone in our government has decided it’s legal. So how does detention work? Who gets to be on that list to be treated like that? How good does the information have to be on them? How are we getting that information?

And then I learn about the renditions and the idea that the CIA had its own separate system for handling terrorism suspects. I found people—some who used to be in the CIA who can talk now, some who are still in, some in the outer circle who are in touch with people being briefed by the agency in some way, some who are being briefed themselves. It’s a pretty select group. I’m finding people who don’t agree, or who are mortified, but I also found people who were worried about the agency’s reputation. They knew when this came out that it would be tarnished. So, on the inside, they were arguing that the agency can’t keep at this.

The prison story was not a story where someone led me to a narrative, either verbal or on paper. The story was put together from people who were in the US and abroad. And who were past and current government employees. Each of them responded to bits and pieces I asked them. It was the broadening of the circle that became really tricky. [Bob] Woodward has this saying that nobody tells you anything truthful during the day, only at night. I found myself working double shifts and doing a lot of restaurants, a lot of sitting in cars, a lot of sitting in odd places where you’re not going to be seen. Both of you are paranoid that you’re going to be seen by somebody. The telephone only works somewhat. People are paranoid about the telephone. At one point I got a bunch of disposable cell phones, but they were such a pain.

On any story that I do that has classified information, or information that seems very sensitive, I always call up the public affairs person when the story is about ready to go and say, “This is what we’re intending to write.” And then I tell them every fact in the story. I’m doing it because I could be exposing something that is potentially damaging in a way that I don’t understand. So that’s what I did with the prison story. It was only after I was entirely done—I did it that way so that I didn’t get unduly influenced by them. I called up the public affairs office and we went through the whole thing.

They asked if I could come in. They sat me down with a very senior director of operations, the person in charge of prisons. He had never talked to anybody in the media. His point was to tell me how vulnerable the relationship between this country and the US was, and would be if the story came out. And how they might break relations, and how that might affect other countries that wouldn’t be able to trust the United States to keep a secret. And that he was going to a particular country to reassure them, because they knew I knew.
I made it clear to the public affairs person that we still intended to publish the story. And so they asked for a meeting with Leonard [Downie Jr., the executive editor]. He brought a couple of other senior editors and we all went over to the agency and had another discussion. I had been filing memos to everybody about these conversations. Our lawyers were in on it. So was outside counsel. We were having discussions at least daily on what were the issues, what should be done, because ultimately it was our decision and we wanted to have thought it through. We knew what some of the issues would be, so we had already been discussing possible compromises, or what we should do and why we should do it. At the end of the meeting, Len said, “We’ll take everything into consideration.”

And then the White House called and asked him to come over and meet with the President. And so he brought Bo [Jones, the publisher] and Don Graham [the CEO] and he didn’t ask me. I’m just pulling their chains, although at the time I really was dying to go. I know that Bush was there and all the senior members. They really did not want this story to run. Leonard told them that we would think about it. When he came back from that meeting, we met several times. Then Len decided that we wouldn’t name the countries. But he didn’t really go beyond that. So, I came up with this notion that we could at least name the region, Eastern Europe. And he was fine with that.

By the time the story went into the paper, I felt like I’d been through the tough part. But that wasn’t really true because then all the shit hit the fan, so to speak, in Congress. The high point and the low point was the leaders of the House and Senate committees calling for an investigation, not on the sites, but of the so-called leak, and of the newspaper. Nobody would confirm their existence, but they were going to go after us anyway. There were hearings and it became pretty heated.

I knew a lot of my sources would dry up. So I had about a half-dozen stories I had been gathering information on and most of those stories were reported out fully before the prison story was published. They all had to do with how the CIA was conducting certain operations. The agency was doing the most at that moment on counterterrorism, and that was something we should understand, how it worked. It became a way for me to educate people on a part of the government that they don’t know anything about. I really had this sensation that there’s this parallel world that’s so important and yet so hidden. And I still feel that way. Whenever anything is going on, and we do a great set of stories about the sensitive negotiations between country X and country Y, I know that below the surface there’s a whole other reality happening that we’ll probably never learn about. That’s how the world works.

I was so blacklisted that I would scare people who I would call, really scare them, because they thought the government was spying on me. So I gave it a rest, and moved off the beat for a while. Luckily, I stumbled into the Walter Reed story, which was so great and so different.

A Thank-You from the Secretary of Defense

People have an idea that stories always happen with an unsolicited phone call, but it had never happened to me like this. I’m sitting on the couch one evening, and a friend of mine called and said, “I have a friend who really wants to talk to you. She is a volunteer up at Walter Reed Medical Center, and she’s seen some things—well, actually she’s been told some things that really disturbed her. Can you talk to her?”

I thought, that’s a local story, and I’m not covering military. But this was a friend, so I met this woman for lunch, and she had a very small corner of the story. She had been volunteering up there, and had listened to the wives and mothers about the experiences that their husbands were having and that they were having, because they lived up there with them, trying to get them help. And the stories were so appalling, and they were so unbelievable that half of me didn’t believe them at all. I left there with one name. She said, “Call this person.” I remember thinking this was one of those too-good-to-check stories, in that kind of weird, journalistic way. But I called her friend, and I went over there for breakfast the next day. The friend, who’d been at Walter Reed longer, told me more stories. She really knew what the universe was like, and she was as convincing as the other person, and she gave me the names of four relatives who she thought would talk to me. She would call to make sure that they would talk to me without going to the authorities. We weren’t sure whether the authorities would take retribution against anybody who complained.

I met three families that each had really excruciatingly detailed and different stories. Now you’re into a person’s medical history, their credibility. After I met the third one, I said to myself, this is probably a story not just about government bureaucracy and failure, but also about human beings. I’m not the best person to write that story. I started to think about [Post colleague] Anne Hull, who I actually hadn’t said two words to before that. We didn’t know each other. I went over to her desk and was very tentative because I didn’t want to scare her away. I wanted her to seriously think about participating. It’s funny, because when we have talked about this first discussion, she says she didn’t want to scare me away. She was so excited about it, but she didn’t want to seem overly excited. We’re totally different writers, but we’re similar in the sense that we are loner reporters. So the idea of teaming up, for both of us, could pose some challenges. Although, in the end, it really did not.

At first I was asking, “How can I get onto the campus?” and my sources were saying, “Just come on.” All you have to do is show your driver’s license, let your car be searched, and write down your name. I couldn’t believe it, because of terrorism, but it was true. I didn’t have to write down my organization. And, because of privacy issues, they’re not allowed to ask you who are you visiting in the hospital, because the guards are not supposed to know who’s in the hospital.

There are all these women walking around—mothers, sisters, girlfriends, wives, aunts. We wore casual clothes to fit in. But we knew if anyone asked us who we were, we couldn’t lie. So that meant not doing things and not going places where we thought there would be someone in authority who would ask, “Well, who are you?” So we avoided things, and when people like officers would walk into a room, we would leave automatically. And, when we got into prolonged conversations with an individual soldier, you’d have to tell them pretty quickly who you were and what you were doing.
We started building a classic network of sources. We got a great source inside Walter Reed who was helpful throughout, who also gave us other sources in Walter Reed who helped to vet what the soldiers were telling us about their medical records. We started asking all the soldiers for their medical records, and in most cases their families had these incredible files of their records—because they all had had such bad experiences with the hospital losing their records or giving them wrong records. Some of them had bought Xerox machines and put them in their rooms, because they had to do this so much.
By the time we went to the Army with our first list of thirty questions, we had the answers to them all, but we did want to give them a chance to have their say-so. Frankly, I couldn’t see how they would explain them away. They decided it would be the commander at Walter Reed who would respond to all the questions. So we went over one afternoon in the winter. It was snowing. We had been there many times before, and the snow was actually one of the parts of the story, because they didn’t clear the sidewalks wide enough so that the wheelchairs could get through the snow. You really had a problem if you were in a wheelchair. And they didn’t do a very good job of cleaning up anyway, so if you were on crutches. . . . One of the wives in our story had sprained or broken her ankle slipping on an un-cleared path. But the minute our car drove in, they had like three MP cars escorting us to where we were going, and then they had a completely snow-blowed—the snow blower was still working on it—parking space available. And we were like, “Can you believe this?”

The reaction to the Walter Reed stories was incredibly positive, so much so that it was overwhelming and surprising. And even from the government. I have a letter on my wall from the Secretary of Defense, who thanked us for the stories. I never have thought that people who work in government are evil. On the contrary, I think they’re probably trying to do a good job; they think they’re doing something right. Like the CIA stuff—those are people who thought that this was the right thing to do, by and large, and no one was telling them otherwise. So for the military to say something like that, it reaffirms that point, that people want to do the right thing. They just often don’t.

Still to this day, people thank me. It feels really strange, because I wrote a story. I didn’t put my life on the line or anything like that. I wish I could say that everything has changed for the soldiers, but it really hasn’t. I still get called and written to every week, not just Walter Reed, but people all over the world who are soldiers. Whenever I write a story, I always think, God, if only people could have been with me. This story is such a pale version of what I’ve seen, who I’ve talked to. In my dreams, I’d have a dinner party in which all my sources come together. They’re such unbelievable people. I can’t even believe that I get to meet people like them, who have had such amazing lives, and not always positive. They are just such characters. I want people to see these people, and their lives, because it’s more of an unvarnished version.

I’d like to figure out a way to bring people along, to say, “Be on my shoulder. Talk to the source. Get these two different versions. Look at this person without an eye, and listen to him talk about being dissed by the clerk in the hospital, because she doesn’t believe that he got a Purple Heart.” You know, I mean, just be right there.

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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. Tags: