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.

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.