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.”

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.