Tim Golden is an investigative reporter for the New York Times and a writer for the New York Times Magazine. Prior to joining the Times’ staff he worked for the Miami Herald and United Press International. He was a member of the Times team that won the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for international reporting for articles about drug corruption in Mexico. While working at the Miami Herald, he shared a 1987 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting for stories on the Iran-Contra affair. He spoke with CJR Daily about his recent series on detainee abuse at the Bagram detention facility in Afghanistan.
Mariah Blake: How did you get started on this series? How did you approach the reporting?
Tim Golden: I had left The Times in April 2003, and when I returned, in February of last year, I wanted to go back at some of the stories we hadn’t really grappled with under the previous regime. The whole realm of secret justice for terrorists was pretty much at the top of our list. I started out by working on Guantanamo, and I was only a few weeks into the reporting when the Abu Ghraib scandal broke.
With Guantanamo, we focused less on the question of abuses than on the justifications that the administration had offered for the extraordinary system of detention and prosecution that it had put in place there. The claim that the detainees represented “the worst of the worst” among global terrorists. The assertion that whatever Guantanamo’s impact on the global stature of the United States, it was outweighed by the importance of the intelligence that was being gleaned. We published a couple of articles on those subjects in June and July. Then I worked for several more months on stories about the origins of the military commissions policy, and about the espionage investigations that originated at Guantanamo.
I started out this year thinking I would work on a couple of very different subjects. But the more we thought about it, the more it struck us that there was probably a good story waiting to be done about the secret detention system in Afghanistan. Several of my colleagues had written good stories about the abuses at Bagram, and the two detainees who died in custody there in December 2002. In March 2004, Doug Jehl got ahold of a summary report on the Army’s criminal investigation, and it was pretty horrifying stuff.
But it seemed like there was probably more there, and so I set out to try to track down soldiers who had served there and others who might be able to tell the story of how Bagram had worked. I figured out that the Army’s criminal investigators had already been most everywhere I was going, so I began trying see if I couldn’t get a copy of their full report. Once I got the file, it was just a matter of making sense of all the pieces, constructing a narrative and filling in blanks.
MB: Was there any talk in the newsroom about the implications of publishing it so soon after the Newsweek piece that was blamed by some for igniting protests in Afghanistan? If so, what was the discussion like?
TG: There was a lot of talk about finishing the story so that it could run ahead of the mega-project that the paper was doing about class issues in America. I worked full-tilt on the Bagram story for more than a month, trying to get it ready to run by Sunday, May 15, because the class series was going to start the following week. Then the editors decided to move the class series up by a week, and so my story got bumped from that Sunday’s paper at the last minute. From then on, it was mostly a matter of getting two open pages for the first-day story.
It was probably a very good thing that my stories didn’t run on that Sunday and Monday, because that was when the Newsweek debacle hit a kind of high-water mark with the non-retraction retraction and whatnot. But we are almost never as strategic about these things as conspiracy-minded readers (and government officials) tend to assume. Later, a lot of readers wrote in to say how courageous or conniving we had been to run the series so soon on the heels of the Newsweek thing. Mostly, though, we just wanted to get it into the paper as soon as possible.
MB: A few conservative bloggers and pundits have questioned the timing of the series. Glen Reynolds (Instapundit) went as far as suggesting that The New York Times was trying to avert attention from the Newsweek ordeal by running it. What would you say to these critics?