When Washington Post intelligence reporter Dana Priest began investigating prisoner treatment in Afghanistan after 9/11, she had no idea the trail would lead her to uncovering the Bush administration’s 'black sites'
program - secret U.S. prisons for extra-legal interrogation of ‘enemy combatants.’ Priest details her scoop and reporting on government secrets during the so-called war on terror.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media, devoted this week to investigative journalism. I'm Brooke Gladstone. BOB GARFIELD: And, I'm Bob Garfield. In 2005, the war in Iraq was raging, the Bush White House was still managing one of the most secretive on-message administrations in recent memory and the press was soul-searching about its complicity in the run-up to war.
But that climate was beginning to change. In 2004, the Abu Ghraib scandal broke. Detainees at Guantanamo Bay were getting renewed attention as their numbers swelled. And then, in 2005, Dana Priest, an investigative and defense reporter at The Washington Post, broke the story of what the intelligence community called “black sites.”
What Priest revealed was an extensive network of secret prisons used for so-called high-value detainees and operated in conjunction with foreign governments we'd previously spurned. The piece caused shock throughout the U.S. and Europe, spurred on further reporting about extraordinary rendition – basically, kidnapping – and other extralegal techniques, all of this initially denied by the Bush Administration.
Dana Priest joins us now to talk about her reporting. Dana, welcome back to the show. DANA PRIEST: Glad to be here. BOB GARFIELD: What started you on this story? What was the first tip to you that the U.S. had this extralegal system for terror suspects? DANA PRIEST: Actually, it went back all the way to December of '02, when we wrote our very first story saying that U.S. forces capturing people in Afghanistan were holding some of them, not in the regular prisons that the military controlled.
That got me thinking, well, what are they doing with the al Qaeda suspects? And we also talked about the types of methods that they were using, stress and duress techniques.
The story that I wrote for The Post in November of ’05 was a culmination of three years of reporting about counterterrorism operations. BOB GARFIELD: Well, a stunning culmination it was but, you know, I must say for all its detail, it didn't have photographs, it didn't have on-the-record confirmations from administration officials.
At any point before November 2005, did you personally feel that you had met the threshold for going to publication with this? DANA PRIEST: You know, you said “official confirmation.” It had no names of anybody, and even the sources that were helping, you couldn't describe them, in any way. I mean, it wasn't a problem to me because I knew who the sources were and I knew how credible they were, but I could see as a reader you might say, well, why should we believe this.
And that’s where anyone who’s going to write about intelligence has this problem, because of the type of sources that you are using and also that you are now in a realm of national security secrets, and you have to weigh things that you didn't have to weigh before. BOB GARFIELD: Now Dana, The Washington Post does not just run a story like this and let the chips fall where they may. It approaches the administration and says - here’s what we've got, what have you got to say about it? Can you tell me something about that process? DANA PRIEST: Yes, we go to the administration with the facts that we have assembled in our story, saying, if you think something we're going to write is going to actually damage national security, now is your time to let us know.
And on this story, they did. They said, we don't think you should publish the names of the countries and we'd really like it if you didn't publish the story. But it wasn't a demand not to publish the story. And then that starts a dialogue. We want to know from them what their reasons are.
And they shared some things with us, and then Len Downie, executive editor, had discussions with me and my other editors, and then he made the decision on his own to withhold the names of the countries, where they were, but not the region. BOB GARFIELD: Now, I have to ask you about this vetting process. Understanding that The Post has no wish to jeopardize national security, how do you weigh their objections to a story, you know, not knowing whether the boy is just crying wolf? DANA PRIEST: Intimidation is not a reason to not publish something, nor is political embarrassment. The reasons that we didn't publish the names, as we cited in the story, were basically two arguments they made. One is that because the prisons held high-value detainees, those countries might be more subject to retaliation by al Qaeda and their affiliates.
But secondly, and I think what was more interesting to think about, was the potential damage to the relationship between those countries and the CIA in areas of cooperation that were not controversial, like the “black sites.” And we happened to know some of those areas and, therefore, we could make a more educated call. BOB GARFIELD: And what about that intervening year, when the Bush Administration was denying the scenario entirely? DANA PRIEST: They never actually denied the reports, in any public forum. I don't know what they told other journalists. The Administration, the Justice Department and the CIA launched leak investigations.
Shortly after I published the “black sites” story, The New York Times published their NSA wiretapping story. So all three of us, Eric Lichtblau, Jim Risen and myself, we were all lumped together when the leader of the House and the Senate demanded an investigation, not of the stories or the “black sites,” but of the reporting.
When, a year later, the President did end up confirming that they existed and that they were being emptied, I have to say I was shocked. I never thought I would see that day. BOB GARFIELD: Now, you began the investigation that led to the “black sites” story in 2002, had spent several years working on it. Your story runs, you win the Pulitzer Prize. The scales fall from America’s eyes about what is being done in the name of national security. And then about five minutes later, the newspaper industry just begins to collapse, and The Washington Post right in the middle of that process.
If you started your work today, would you have the time, the luxury and the resources to chip away over the course of three years the way you did? DANA PRIEST: Well, I really do think that I would, and this is why. It’s our franchise. Not everybody can do it. And so, if you’re interested in that as a reader, you will know that you only have a handful of places to turn to look for it.
So my editors have continued to give me a lot of freedom. After the “black sites” stories I spent five months with another colleague on the national staff working on the Walter Reed Medical Center scandal. And then after that, I spent - [OVERTALK] BOB GARFIELD: And another Pulitzer. DANA PRIEST: No [LAUGHS] I've had three potential stories fall apart on me in the last month. [LAUGHS] But I'm still here, you know, trying to find a new one. BOB GARFIELD: Well Godspeed to you, Dana. Thank you. DANA PRIEST: Thank you. BOB GARFIELD: Dana Priest writes about national security and intelligence, as a staff writer for The Washington Post.