Reporting the Story
January 18, 2011, 6:58 pm ET
Dana Priest is a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter for The Washington Post. She spent three years as the Post‘s intelligence reporter and was Pentagon correspondent for seven years before that. She covered the invasion of Panama (1989), reported from Iraq (1990), covered the Kosovo war (1999), and has traveled widely with Army Special Forces in Asia, Africa and South America and with Army infantry units on peacekeeping duty in Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan.
Priest has received numerous awards, including the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for “The Other Walter Reed” and the 2006 Pulitzer for Beat Reporting for her work on CIA secret prisons and counterterrorism operations overseas. Her widely acclaimed 2003 book about the military’s expanding responsibility and influence, THE MISSION: Waging War and Keeping Peace With America’s Military, earned the New York Public Library Bernstein Book Award and was a finalist for The Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction.
How did you get interested in investigating “Top Secret America”?
As a beat reporter covering the CIA and intelligence world after the terrorist attacks of 2001, I could sense that many things I couldn’t see or understand were changing, expanding, getting so big they were difficult to manage. I could see this in the defense budget alone and in the supplemental appropriations that Congress was making to fight the war against Al Qaeda.
How difficult was it to report this issue?
This was one of the hardest stories I’ve ever worked on, if not the hardest. We were essentially having to write about programs and offices the government classified in order to keep secret.
Our first revelation about how to do this was the understanding that everything lives somewhere. Each agency has an office, with an address. It has to be able to receive supplies, get mail, have people drive to work. So we decided to “map” this world using the addresses we could find.
“My goal, as always, is simply to inform the public about an issue that is nearly impossible for them to learn about on their own.”
Typically we would go scouting with the few addresses we had. Once we got to a particular location, there were inevitably other similar-sounding offices nearby, so we would then have more offices to investigate. Of course we obtained the names of particular offices and corporations in various ways, but mostly through publicly-available sources, deep-web and .mil domain searching, and, of course, our own sources. We started out with just a few dozen names, then we had a couple hundred, then a thousand, then more. The size was a surprise.
What’s been the reaction of the intelligence community to your reporting? How has the public responded?
Mixed. Many people were glad we put a name to all this because they have been frustrated with the management and waste that we described. Some people sort of shrugged and said, “duh”… those were insiders who have lost perspective, in my opinion. And many people were just shocked by the size and expense.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates has promised a thorough review of intel programs and he seems to be carrying that out.
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence has undergone changes too, but it’s hard to parse out exactly why and what is going on.
CIA director Leon Panetta is trying to decrease the agency’s dependence on contractors.
Congressional intelligence committees have held related classified, closed-door hearings, some members made public floor speeches on the subject.
And there was a huge reaction from editorial writers across the country bringing the issue to their readers’ attention. Several civil and privacy rights advocacy groups have taken up various elements to pursue on their own, through the filing of Freedom of Information requests, etc.
The Post website recorded record-breaking numbers, 3 million hits in the first three days. We overloaded and froze Twitter’s servers the first day!
In your “Monitoring America” article you talk about ways in which technology has migrated from the battlefield to the homeland. What were some of the most “out there” technologies you see being marketed to law enforcement?
Biometrics such as stand-off fingerprint recognition. In other words, a police officer standing 30 feet away from the subject points a beam or something at the subject’s hand and gets a fingerprint reading without the subject even knowing it. Same for facial recognition.
“Top Secret America” identifies significant problems, such as waste, redundancy, inefficiency and, arguably, ineffectiveness. Did you uncover anything you found reassuring?
In general, I found that people within the system want to do the right thing and work hard at it. Leadership is the issue.
Your Washington Post investigation features a number of multimedia initiatives, including searchable databases and an interactive map. Tells us about the process of translating your investigation into the digital world.
It took 10 times longer than anyone thought it would. The hardest part was translating the database — which was a chore in and of itself — into a form that would simplify tens of thousands of bits of data, and still tell a complex story. Also, mapping everything was painstaking, because in order to locate anything on an actual map you need to double check exact addresses and even zip codes. Again, we were dealing with thousands of addresses.
In 2006, you spoke to us for our series News War about criticism that your investigation into secret CIA prisons had damaged national security. Have you faced similar criticism over this story? Have you seen a change in the climate around national security reporting since that time?
We faced considerable public criticism from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, but it did not get much traction and seemed to fizzle out as an issue.
I was not confronted with harsh critiques from conservative talk show personalities like I was over secret prisons. In fact, conservative media outlets were among the most interested in the topic, Fox News talk shows in particular. Its hosts worried about big government and effectiveness.
As for the “climate” question — the Obama adminstration has been even more aggressive in using legal means to pursue instances of unauthorized leaks of classified material to the media than the Bush administration ever was. Just to name a few, the Justice Department has pursued legal cases against: a whistleblower who allegedly shared information about a botched multi-billion program with a Baltimore Sun reporter; another former CIA officer who allegedly shared classified information about efforts to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program with a book author; it has charged a soldier with leaking information to Wikileaks, and has threatened to bring charges against Wikileaks’ founder.
Even if all these people were to be found not guilty, the effort to prosecute, and the threats of further prosecutions, have a chilling effect on the relationship between government sources and the media. Ultimately, they affect the ability to keep the public informed on what its government is doing in its name.
What is the future of this project and your continuing investigation? What would you like ultimately to see come from it?
We are continuing our pursuit of the subject. My goal, as always, is simply to inform the public about an issue that is nearly impossible for them to learn about on their own. That is my only goal as a reporter
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