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.

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.