Soon after 9/11, Pittsburgh Tribune reporter Carl Prine began walking into chemical storage facilities to document their vulnerability. Six years on, Prine is still "thinking like a terrorist," raising questions about the public’s right to know and how much information is too much.
CHRIS BANNON: In the years since 9/11, Carl Prine, an investigative reporter for The Pittsburg Tribune-Review, has worn away lots of shoe leather exposing how vulnerable America is to terrorist attack. A veteran of the first Iraq War, with training in chemicals, Prine became concerned after reading that blueprints of U.S. chemical plants were found in the effects of 9/11 hijacker Mohammed Atta and in Al Qaeda hideouts in Tora Bora. That launched Prine on a nearly six-year beat that has brought attention to both his findings and his tactics.
He began by walking into supposedly secure high-risk chemical storage facilities, and then he wrote about how easy it was to gain access. CARL PRINE: You could put your hand on the tank. You could jump all over it. You could photograph yourself on it, and you could leave. If I had wanted to kill tens of thousands of people in our major American cities, I could have done it. CHRIS BANNON: Your editors obviously said, yes, go ahead and do this. But did they say, here's where you have to draw the line, here's what you can't do? CARL PRINE: Sure. Yeah. We have some of those rules. We don't want to break any laws, so if there's a no-trespassing sign, I don't cross it. If there's a lock, I won't jimmy it. If there's a fence, I won't climb it.
I hate to tell you that over the years, I've never had to do any of that. [LAUGHTER] People leave their gates open. Smokers are notorious for leaving buildings open. If you stake out a place long enough, you'll see, through the process of human error, many ways you can get into a plant and out of a plant without anybody even noticing you were there. CHRIS BANNON: So the series ran, and how did your audience - I mean, it ran in Pittsburgh - I assume was picked up in other newspapers around the country - how did your readers react? CARL PRINE: The first time we did our stories on fixed facilities, we tended to be more supportive. This was in 2002. There was still a sense that the country had pulled together and that we all needed to get a plan that would protect everybody.
As the years have gone by, and as we've gone into a war in Iraq, it's become much more of a patriotic issue, that if you raise these questions you're being inherently unpatriotic and that you are abetting the enemy. That's been a real sea shift. Perhaps I should have noticed that, but I didn't notice that coming. CHRIS BANNON: Do you see any part of that argument that you could agree with? I mean, you're publishing information in essentially what could look to many people like a blueprint for how to do this. Is it valid for people to be worried about it? CARL PRINE: Actually, I think it is valid for people to worry about that. There's always a problem. If you don't publicize something, then there's never any accountability for it. So they won't change their practices. The government won't do what they're supposed to do to protect the homeland.
So our way around a lot of these nettlesome issues is to - whenever I do one of these stories I give all the photographs and all the information to the facility security managers or the railroad managers at least a month or two in advance so they can see exactly how I was able to get to where I needed to go.
I also give all this information to government, whether it's local, state or federal, anybody who wants to see it, so they can remedy any security defects. CHRIS BANNON: Have you gone back to see if the plants changed in the months, say, between when you gave them the information and when it was published? CARL PRINE: Yeah. I did that in 2003. I went with 60 Minutes and we went through a number of chemical plants. What I found is at that point they really hadn't done it. They had said they were going to make changes but they never really did. And there wasn't really a statutory framework for them to have to do so. CHRIS BANNON: Well, you decided to serve your government. You had served in the Marines before, and in 2005 you reenlisted in the National Guard and you were sent to Iraq. Was it hard transitioning from someone who pokes around and asks difficult questions into somebody who has to take orders and do what he's told every day? CARL PRINE: Yes and no. I wanted to serve my country again. I thought I understand transnational terrorism very well, and I wanted to fight. I'm out there for eight months in Anbar Province. We were between Ramadi and Fallujah in what then was the hotbed of the rebellion. So it was what the Army would call a very kinetic environment.
This is a counterinsurgency war, and it's a war that requires what they call strategic corporals to basically think like a reporter. Your job is to develop sources in a community, is to analyze data very quickly, to rapidly make decisions that are important, on deadline. CHRIS BANNON: So when you came back, did the chemical storage beat, did it look different to you? CARL PRINE: I had less patience for a lot of stories that were being told out there by flacks. For example, I remember I would call up a railroad official and he would say, well, there's no way possible a terrorist could blow up a railcar.
No. I think once you've seen an armored vehicle melted and you're pulling out bodies of people that you knew, you have a lot less patience for people who suggest that a bomb-maker can't possibly fathom a way to open up a chlorine railcar. It's ludicrous. Absolutely ludicrous.
I think the stories that I do are really footnotes to a larger series of questions. What is the role of the press in a free society? How much deference should we give to political or military leaders in a lot of these decisions? How informed do we need to be as a nation about any of the threats that face us? I want our stories to force a conversation.
The only part that I really don't like is when they question my patriotism. That really bothers me, because the only reason why I was in Iraq was because of my patriotism. I'm hearing this now more and more. Journalists have lost the war in Iraq. Journalists are helping terrorists. This personally offends me. It's a disgusting thing to say. CHRIS BANNON: Well, Carl, thanks very much for joining us on On the Media. CARL PRINE: No problem. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Carl Prine is an investigative reporter for The Pittsburg Tribune. The PBS series Expose began its season with a look at Carl's work. The episodes are available at www.pbs.orgexpose. [CLIP]: JOSEPH R. BIDEN: I went to the Naval Research Institute, the best scientists we have. I said, what would happen if somebody stuck plastique, like Carl stuck his card, on a chlorine gas tanker car and it was remotely detonated. He said up to 100,000 people could die in a populated area. TELEVISION SHOW NARRATOR: In March 2007, Biden proposed an amendment to a security bill, calling for more rail police, rerouting away from major cities and replacing lethal chemicals with safer alternatives. Biden could not overcome stiff opposition from the rail and chemical industries. His amendment was voted down. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]