TG: I am reluctant to respond to people who call themselves by names like “Instapundit.” I certainly support scrutiny of the press; the Times is a big, powerful institution and I think it should be accountable to the public. But a lot of our self-appointed critics don’t make much of an effort to base their opinions on facts. Nor do they seem to understand much about the way that newspapers work.
We had a story that we thought was very important. Disrespecting the Koran is obviously a terrible thing, but here you had more than two dozen American servicemen allegedly beating to death a couple of young detainees — at least one of whom was known to be innocent — at a flagship operations base of the War on Terror. You had a criminal inquiry that both Army investigators and military lawyers moved to close down without charging anyone. So while we were certainly sensitive to the passions that had been inflamed by the Newsweek episode, we were not going to sit around waiting for the wires to clear before we published what we thought was important news.
MB: In the story about the two detainees deaths, you saved some of the most staggering details for the end (such as the fact that Mr. Dilawar’s legs were pulpified, according to the coroner, and resembled those of someone who had been run over by a bus). This is rare in a newspaper story. Why did you do it?
TG: The Army’s investigative file gave us something that is pretty rare in these kinds of stories — a view of what had taken place from all sorts of different angles. I wanted to use that to try to tell a story that gave a sense of where the different characters had come from, and perhaps how they saw what was going on. And I could’ve used more space to draw out those characters. But 6,000 words is also a lot to ask a newspaper reader to consume in one shot, and so we tried to tell the story in a way that would both be powerful and keep people reading.
MB: You managed to avoid relying on anonymous sources in the series. What’s more, you got government sources to go on the record with damning information. How did you do it? Do you think more journalists could get government sources to go on the record if they worked harder at it?
TG: I’ve worked hard to get people on the record in these stories. That was a particular goal in the two-parter we last ran October, in which a number of current and former officials spoke on the record and in detail for the first time about the origins of the administration’s system of military detention and prosecution for accused terrorists. Often it requires going back to sources six or seven or eight times to push them; that’s a luxury that beat reporters in Washington rarely have.
My sense is that reporters take the anonymous-sourcing issue very seriously, but that the change is going to be gradual and incomplete. In this case, I really can’t claim too much credit. The Army investigative file that I got was full of sworn statements. A lot of the people I called to interview were angry or upset when I told them that I was going to print what they said. A lot of them hung up the phone. I did do interviews on background to try to learn more about what had been going on, but I tried to quote only the ones I could attribute by name.
MB: You suggested in the second story of the series that a March 2003 New York Times article helped jumpstart a stalled government inquiry into the abuses at Bagram. What impact do you think (or hope) your recent series will have?
TG: I don’t think I suggested that about the first story; the record of the Army investigation did. I do think Carlotta Gall and our Pashto-speaking fixer, Ruhullah Khapalwak, deserve a great deal of credit for tracking down Dilawar’s relatives and telling the world about the folded-up piece of paper that had been handed back to them with his body. The family couldn’t read the form — it was in English — but it said, “Homicide.” And while the American military authorities in Afghanistan certainly knew about that piece of paper, they were saying publicly that both men had died of natural causes.