The Wall Street Journal gets a big scoop today on the ground in Libya, reporting that Western companies helped Qaddafi create a massive email and phone surveillance system to spy on Libyans.

Amesys, a unit of France’s Bull SA, sold the dictator its Eagle system, which allows governments to pull any and all email passing through the country’s networks

South Africa’s VASTech SA Pty Ltd let Qaddafi “tap and log all the international phone calls going in and out of the country.” It didn’t just log the phone numbers, mind you:

There they captured roughly 30 to 40 million minutes of mobile and landline conversations a month and archived them for years, one of the people said.

China’s ZTE Corporation gave Qaddafi some sort of telecom intelligence capability, the Journal says, and our very own Boeing Company met with Qaddafi’s regime about an internet-monitoring system, though it declined fast-track visas to Tripoli because the protests were already beginning.

But why was a U.S. defense company even talking about selling spying equipment to a dictator?

Perhaps it’s because of the example set by the government itself. The Obama administration itself was planning to sell armored troop carriers to Qaddafi in the months before it went to war with him.

How did the spying capabilities play out in the real world? The Journal found a file kept on communications from Human Rights Watch’s Heba Morayef and others. Here’s one:

Another file, dated Jan. 6, 2011, monitors two people, one named Ramadan, as they struggle to share an anti-Gadhafi video and upload it to the Web. One message reads: “Dear Ramadan : Salam : this is a trial to see if it is possible to email videos. If it succeeds tell me what you think.”

And this appears to be an anecdote from the paper’s own earlier reporting (emphasis mine):

“We’re likely to disappear if you aren’t careful,” a 22-year-old student who helped organize some of the biggest protests near Tripoli said in a Skype chat with a foreign journalist before fleeing to Egypt. Then, on March 1, two of his friends were arrested four hours after calling a foreign correspondent from a Tripoli-based cellphone, according to a relative. It is unclear what division of the security service picked them up or whether they are still in jail.

This story reminds me of how the Journal’s Alan Cullison stumbled across computers from Al Qaeda HQ after the Taliban was routed in Afghanistan back in 2001. It’s ultimate shoe-leather.

But shoe leather, of course, isn’t enough to get a story like today’s. You almost surely need a broader perspective and prior knowledge in order to place it into context—to see what you’ve really got.

The Qaddafi-spying story fits neatly into the Journal’s ongoing series called Censorship Inc., a disturbing look at how private companies are helping countries suppress their citizens. It shows how conceptualizing series like this —and more broadly, the editorial arc—can be so important. Just because a journalist stumbles across some information doesn’t mean that he or she will find the real story there.

That Qaddafi spied on his citizens is hardly surprising news. That Western companies enabled Qaddafi to spy systematically on his citizens is a great story. It’s hardly an accident that it’s the Journal that got it.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at rc2538@columbia.edu. Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.