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A Career Spent Uncovering Secrets

Priest to Teach Students the Art of National Security Reporting

By Liam Farrell

Dana Priest

Any list of the most important journalists in the post-9/11 era would undoubtedly include Dana Priest.

Dana Priest

The Washington Post reporter, who was recently appointed the new John S. and James L. Knight Chair in Public Affairs Journalism at UMD’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism, has spent her career exploring the secret corners of the world. She won Pulitzer Prizes for unearthing the CIA’s “black site” program of secret prisons in Eastern Europe for terrorist suspects and for exposing the shameful state of veteran care at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.

Priest’s 2011 book, “Top Secret America,” explored the overwhelming size and complexity of the national security system in the wake of 9/11, from its unclear goals to its legions of expensive private contractors.

At Maryland, she’ll educate the next generation of journalists in national security reporting and enlist students in investigative projects for The Post.

She recently spoke with Terp’s Liam Farrell about her career and plans for the classroom. Below is an edited excerpt.

Was there a single “a-ha” moment that made you get into journalism?

When I got to The Post, I was on the foreign desk as an intern, and I just thought, “This is it. This is what I want to do.” I worked with really smart people, I got to edit some of the foreign correspondents, I got to see the inside of the civil war in Lebanon. That was also the year of the Iran-Contra scandal, which I found endlessly fascinating, and I just couldn’t believe we were exchanging arms for hostages in Iran. The whole secrecy of it was very eye-opening and thrilling to become a part of.

It was a good time to have the foreign news-and-Washington nexus.

That’s when I think I caught the bug. I was at the St. Pete Times and I did general assignment, and eventually I did county government, and then that meant I did crazy Florida land grab/scandals. (There were) endless real estate, endless local corruption, endless wacky stories — a woodpecker pecks down a phone pole and outs electricity to 300,000 people, or the old couple who gets disoriented and drives off the runway of the little airport into the bay. I worked 24/7 because it was so much fun, and The Post asked me if I wanted to come back just a year later.

I got a couple of good scandals, one involving a very progressive-thinking sheriff having an affair with a contractor, and there was another Pentagon procurement scandal involving a guy who lived in the area. That’s where I got to see the link between the local and the national, which is so rich in the Washington area. A local reporter can begin to cover a burglary and end up covering Watergate.

The types of sources that you need require an incredible amount of trust and secrecy. Did you only develop source relationships like that once you started to cover secret organizations, or had you been building the necessary skills all along?

The skills that you learn young are very much the ones that stay with you, and that’s why I’m excited about teaching students. What I want to do here is really concentrate on source building and also what is publicly available that might surprise you.

The skills of cultivating trust with sources are really the same; the sources get different. You could say the stakes are different, but if you are at a local level and someone is doing something wrong and someone wants to step out and tell you, for them it’s the same. They are still taking a risk, they still need to trust you, they still need to believe that you’ll tell an accurate story.

When you are working on something that’s explosive, are you confident because you’ve done so much work beforehand, or does even the most experienced reporter get jitters?

What makes me nervous is just the expectation that I’m going to be able to carry these stories off. Because most of the stories I do, I don’t really know if I’m going to be able to get what’s really there. That’s the hardest part. My biggest worry is being inaccurate.

But in the areas there are national security concerns, it’s before the story comes out that I think really, really hard with the newspaper about the value of making it public.

Investigative reporters can do an incredible amount of great work and get only a few articles a year done. Do you have a “thrill of the chase” to prevent frustration?

Definitely. You go down rabbit holes, you think something’s there, or some person that seems credible comes forward and says you have to check this out, and then you check it out and you either can’t really get to the bottom of it or you don’t find what the person is saying. That’s the risk in investigative journalism, that you waste time even though you don’t know you’re about to waste time. I have done it.

You have to be sustained by the daily quest for information. And I am. Once I get something that is interesting and something that I’m pretty sure other people don’t know, that is a motivator to keep going. I am working on this story now for The Post that I can’t really describe—except that I hope it will be an interesting, revelatory story. During that period of time, I learned about a new military unit I have never heard of and I just got very excited about that because I think that I know the military, the clandestine units, pretty well. That was thrilling for me even though it may or may not turn out to be a big part of the story.

Was it harder to report on the Walter Reed situation (with colleague Anne Hull) because it was somewhat different from uncovering policy or reporting on strategy?

There were other challenges, like getting these people on the record, given how vulnerable they were. But making the network of contacts—really we started just with one or two phone numbers—was the classic kind of gumshoe investigative reporting, where you have an allegation, some rumors, and then one phone number that leads you to another.

The sustaining thing about it was the sort of people we were meeting. They were these very wonderful human beings who had been through so much, and that by itself was a motivating factor—how could this be true?

There was a passage in one of the articles where it described the morning roll call (for injured soldiers). Was reporting on something journalists aren’t supposed to see simply a matter of officials not asking who you were?

It was. Normally, on a regular army post, it would just be the soldiers. But with wounded soldiers who couldn’t actually physically even get there or wouldn’t remember, if they were brain-traumatized, what was said, they had family members with them. Those family members weren’t in uniform, and they included women my age. So getting a family to bring you with them was not impossible.

It seems like an interesting test case, from a student perspective: Don’t think you can’t do investigative reporting.

Definitely. And you don’t know what you’re going to do until you get in there and try to figure out what is the dynamic of the situation. It’s a tricky case to describe to students because I don’t advocate, and The Post would not allow, disguising yourself or being deceitful, but it’s right on the border. You’re not telling them what you’re doing—it’s omission.

Did your stories on the black sites or Walter Reed inspire a conversation or result that you felt good about?

Yes, but in two different ways. The Walter Reed stories ran on a Presidents Day weekend, which is a three-day weekend, so a lot of people weren’t in town. I had no expectations about what was going to happen. I couldn’t read the situation.

It was beyond anything I’d ever seen in the sense it took on a life of its own, and the Web definitely helped, as did (Don) Imus on the radio. The retired military, who were so outraged about it, they had a network. There were all these networks that weren’t connected to me or The Post that took the story, put it out there, and then we learned later in the process were exerting their own pressure.

It was taken out of our hands, and rightly so. We weren’t advocates for anything in particular. Maybe a week after the stories ran, members of Congress had organized a briefing at Walter Reed and they had our three main characters at the briefing. I had chills just watching them, because I was nervous for them—two of them had PTSD—and the other one, who was the wife of a soldier, got very emotional. They were just so articulate and you could see it was so riveting. It just never stopped. The commission they set up, it was way more than I could ever have expected, and gratifying to no end. How could you not be moved by what these people were going through?

The CIA secret prisons (story) was totally the opposite. When it came out, there wasn’t a great outcry. There was a very big criticism of The Post and me, and that was the loudest voice. I was vilified by people, publicly, by name, had terrible email messages sent, a couple death threats we had to take seriously. I was just amazed.

But over time, I would say three to five years later, Bush recognized there were secret prisons and moved them out, and as the politics changed in Washington and the Democrats took the Senate, then they started using that as a political weapon. The whole thing changed.

A lot of what you have been working on recently has been revisiting things from the past. In “Top Secret America,” that can all be traced back to Sept. 11.

So much happened after 9/11 in the reordering of our priorities and where money is spent and what government does. Really in that decade we were so busy reporting and trying to follow what the government was doing. We couldn’t do it in real time because so much of it was hidden.

Have you found the top-secret world so big that it’s hard for people to even debate it or come up with solutions?

Partly it’s the size. If you don’t think everything is great within this complex, what are you going to do about it? It’s all secret, so you’re not really in that part of the conversation. There are so many things to look at and reform, where do you start?

However, it does marry up completely with the (Edward) Snowden revelations in the sense that the capital of Top Secret America is not Washington, D.C., but is Fort Meade, and basically a three-mile diameter around Fort Meade where all the businesses and contractors are clustered.

How have the continuing revelations from the Edward Snowden material influenced the debate over U.S. intelligence operations?

The Snowden documents have done two completely different things, which would be interesting to study. Someday I would like to do a class on that.

Government has opened up and given out more documents. On the (Office of the Director of National Intelligence) website, they are constantly now—it’s usually on a Friday afternoon, when people are gone, but nevertheless—putting out more and more formerly classified documents. So that’s all good, and obviously they don’t think that damaged national security or they wouldn’t do it.

On the other hand, there have been some policy changes in the last couple months that are draconian in nature when it comes to dealing with a journalist. (The changes) should be frightening to people. The last one has to do with people who even have social contact with media—you’re on the same soccer team, your kids are—(they) have to report this to their agencies. They are not allowed to discuss anything that is even unclassified with media unless they’ve been approved.

Will it help your classes that the University of Maryland itself is located in the heart of Top Secret America?

That means a lot for me as a professor, and for students it should mean a lot. That local/national story is right here. One of the things I want to do as a professor is to show students how much influence journalism in that space can have. I’ve always been surprised as how we inform Congress on things they should really already know, and journalism students should be able to do that too. I’m hoping my classes will be very practical.

I’m going to teach a course on imprisoned journalists overseas, and the idea is to have students look at what the media does overseas, but also then understand the bilateral relationship between the United States and whatever country we are looking at. That will get them into understanding how the national security agencies work, where certain ones have more input and ties to countries than others.

Somewhere down the road these journalism students may run into an old classmate on the cybersecurity side.

I really want to reach out to computer science students and the other people who are in that field. Some of them might be interested in knowing what a journalist’s perspective is, but also I’m hoping some of them can help us figure out ways to analyze things. The government writes these algorithms to find people that they are interested in; could we use that same skill for big data analysis of our own?

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