"Pipeline to Peril," a Chicago Tribune investigation
Essay by Steve Weinberg on behalf of
Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE)
Journalists covet evidence. When an investigative reporter is trying to prove wrongdoing, a letter written by a corporate director can supply verification. So can a lawsuit filed at the courthouse, or reams of information stored within a government agency's computer database.
In some investigations, however, reliable documents and government databases are unavailable. That is when journalists must rely on human sources, with all their knowledge and all their fallibilities. This investigation by Cam Simpson showed how critical it can be to find and talk to human sources.
The EXPOSÉ itself took root because of a human source -- Simpson's own wife, who called him to the television set to watch a BBC news brief about twelve men from the mountain nation of Nepal dying at the hands of assassins in Iraq. The deaths received so little news coverage that they might have never entered Simpson's universe if his wife had been away from the television.
How did those men from one of the world's poorest, most remote lands end up in Iraq, Simpson wondered, on their way to supply American soldiers with food and other necessities? Simpson knew that documents would be hard if not impossible to find in Nepal and Jordan (their transit point). He also knew intuitively that the parents, siblings, friends and co-workers of the dead men would best be able to answer many of his questions in the absence of documents, given the nature of illegal operations in Nepal, Jordan and Iraq. So he convinced his editors to provide him and photographer José Moré with the resources and money to go to Nepal, where they would try to meet in person with the families.
"It is best to find people and question them in person," Simpson says. That way, a journalist can study the surroundings of his subjects and sources, and then can write a more compelling, credible story by understanding their environment and culture.
The Nepalese families knew almost nothing about the ways of American journalists. They agreed to talk, however, because the reporter and photographer demonstrated sensitivity to their grief.
With their help, Simpson could try to bring the dead men to life through their own words and the recollections of others. An interview with one of the mothers of the deceased proved particularly powerful. In Nepal, Simpson also found a transcript of videotaped statements made by some of the men while in captivity in Iraq. Obtaining that transcript without cultivating difficult-to-reach human sources face to face would have been nearly impossible.
Simpson needed cooperation from the relatives for more than the emotional element of the story. He needed their help finding and contacting each person serving as a link in the illicit pipeline that plucked desperate individuals from their poverty-stricken villages with false promises of safe, lucrative work overseas. But it would not be easy, and it would not happen fast.
Learning the culture of an unknown land is vital to success along the "people trail." In this case, for a U.S. journalist, patience was especially important within a cultural context that emphasizes politeness on the most surface of encounters.
"Do not let days without significant progress dissuade you," Simpson has advised. "Nothing in the developing world will ever happen on your schedule. Murphy's Law is almost always in effect. That said, people in many developing countries are often very eager to help, especially if you learn the local customs and treat everyone with honesty and respect." The patience paid off for Simpson; he convinced Nepalese villagers, even through language differences, that he intended to treat them fairly.
Simpson also interviewed current and former government officials and diplomats in four nations, talking to at least 70 sources before obtaining the information he needed to construct an accurate, compelling story.
The distinction between sources who currently work for a government or business and the sources who have formerly worked at those organizations is crucial. "Current" sources are usually up to date with the life of the subject being written about, but might respond to questions from a stranger guardedly. "Former" sources, on the other hand, are more likely to speak candidly.
Currents and formers pointed Simpson toward documents important to the story. In the U.S., Simpson found documents explaining restrictions on human trafficking by defense contractors such as Halliburton and its subsidiaries. Such policy documents provide journalists with benchmarks, allowing them to determine eventually whether the story subjects acted illegally, or immorally.
The sources also pointed Simpson to litigation involving individuals and institutions involved in the scandal. The documents yielded insights -- and a new trove of human sources.
For example, litigation existed relating to Halliburton and its subsidiary KBR. It revealed a Middle Eastern subcontractor who recruited laborers to aid the U.S. occupation of Iraq. As a result, Simpson learned details that KBR and Middle Eastern subcontractor sources never would have revealed voluntarily to a journalist.
With the skillful use of interpreters, Simpson also obtained a larger than expected amount of documentation in Nepal and Jordan.
One of the key documents came from the Jordanian authorities, who released a piece of paper to Simpson showing that a body broker -- that is, a middleman subcontractor who provides workers to contractors such at KBR -- had listed himself as landlord to the majority of the murdered Nepalese men. Without the cooperation of the human sources -- those authorities -- Simpson probably would never have gotten the document to help link the broker to the dead men, given the lies the broker had told previously. As for the broker, he became, at least in theory, yet another human source to cultivate.
With a combination of human sources and hard-to-get documentation -- along with some crucial reporting help from his colleague, Aamer Madhani, who was in a U.S. camp in Iraq reporting about third-country laborers there -- Simpson could piece together a riveting, important story that opened a window through which readers of the Chicago Tribune, and viewers of EXPOSÉ, learned of a crucial, hidden aspect of the Iraq War.
Steve Weinberg, a former executive director of IRE, is a book author, freelance magazine writer, book reviewer and editor. He teaches journalism at the University of Missouri and is the senior contributing editor of The IRE Journal. His books include the well-regarded "Reporter's Handbook: An Investigator's Guide to Documents and Techniques."