A First-Hand Account: Lessons from the Field

Carnegie Fellow

In the fall of 2004, I started writing a series of investigative articles about crimes that took place at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq; these articles were eventually turned into a book entitled Monstering: Inside America’s Policy of Secret Interrogations and Torture in the Terror War.

Here are some of the things that I learned about reporting on Special Operations and other aspects of the military:

How to Find Sources.

Before I start reporting on a story, I spend hours on the computer, looking for articles, websites, blogs, and anything that will provide information about the subject. I compile a database with the names and background information of people that I would like to talk to – dozens usually, and sometimes hundreds. Then I start making phone calls or just get in my car. After the Abu Ghraib scandal broke in 2004, one of the Military Police who were implicated in the scandal – Lynndie England – became notorious for her role in the abuse of prisoners and was sentenced to prison. I had been investigating the scandal for months and wanted very much to meet her, but her family refused to speak with journalists.

On a hot August afternoon, I drove to the trailer park in Fort Ashby, West Virginia, where her parents lived and knocked on the door. I brought along some of my magazine articles, including one about female soldiers in Iraq, and smoked cigarettes with her mother in the kitchen. Four days later, I got an exclusive, jailhouse interview with Lynndie England in a naval brig in San Diego. I got the interview because I went to visit her mom. Too often, journalists rely on only their laptop and a cell phone to do reporting. Sometimes, it is better to go and talk to people.

How to Interview People about Special Operations.

Talking to people involved in this type of conflict is not always easy. People who have been part of U.S. Special Operations are reluctant to say anything about what they have done; if they are currently part of the unit, they can’t say anything – by law. I look for people who have left the service. They are more open about describing their experiences, and some of them are angry about what they have seen. They are often the best sources.

How to Find Documents.

File a Freedom of Information Act request. It’s easy, and the government is required to assist you in getting the documents that you ask for. One organization, the National Freedom of Information Coalition, has drawn up a sample letter that you can use when you file a request.

Keep in mind, though, that when you are writing about Special Operations, the bar is higher. In truth, I never got hold of anything through the Freedom of Information Act, because most of the stories I was writing involved aspects of the military that were protected by the government’s state secrets’ defense. In other words, the government does not have to give you information about an agency, or anything at all, if state secrets might be revealed.

I relied extensively on documents for my reporting, however. I just received them in different ways; a former military officer e-mailed me Power Point slides and CDs that contained images from inside the Abu Ghraib prison, for example. Other times, lawyers gave me documents that were related to cases that they had filed against the government. In addition, I found documents in a database that had been compiled by lawyers working for the American Civil Liberties Union. Recently, WikiLeaks has also been an excellent source of government documents.

How to Verify the Information.

I double- and triple-source material before I publish it. That means I hear things from a source and then look for documentation that backs up their story. In one section of my book, for example, I wrote about a Baghdad man who was held at the notorious Camp Nama, which was run by a covert unit of U.S. Special Operations.

After he told me about his experiences at Camp Nama, I checked with the U.S. military to verify that he had been held as a detainee and confirmed the details of his story – as best I could – with documents such as a Human Rights Watch report entitled “No Blood, No Foul” that provided extensive details about the place, and also with New York Times stories about the prison.

Through a variety of sources, I determined that the way he had described the room where he was held, the dimensions of the prison, and the abuse that he and the other prisoners had undergone were consistent with other accounts that had been published.

How to Keep You and Other People Safe While Doing the Reporting.
I try to use people’s names when I write my articles because that adds credibility to the story and moreover does not allow sources to settle scores or get back at people through anonymous quotes. When I write about certain aspects of the military, though, I do interviews on background to protect my sources. Unfortunately, I know what the stakes are. Two people were killed after I interviewed them in Amman, Jordan, in 2005, and I think about them every day of my life.

I also try to protect my own safety while doing stories. I never go to someone’s house for an interview, for example, or ride with them in a car. And when I am traveling, whether in Moscow or in Murray, Kentucky, I tell a friend when I am leaving for an interview and where the interview will take place and afterwards let them know I’ve returned. I’d rather be the kind of person who later says, “What was I worried about?” then to be the kind of person who finds herself in a situation that she wishes she weren’t.