the water cooler

Tim Golden on Digging Deep, Timing, and Sourcing

May 27, 2005

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.

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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?

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.

I have a hard time judging the impact that these stories have on policies or even on people who read them. Things that strike me as important or outrageous sometimes seem to have no impact on readers at all. But I do think these are the kinds of stories that papers like the Times should be doing, especially at a moment like this in the country’s history.

Mariah Blake writes for the United States Project, CJR’s politics and policy desk. She is based in Washington, DC, and her work has appeared in The Atlantic, The New Republic, Foreign Policy, Salon, The Washington Monthly, and CJR, among other publications.