Q: What’s the Pulitzer experience like?
It was great. Here in the newsroom, there were so many wonderful people who were supportive of what I’d done. I was flooded with mail from four-star generals and little old ladies thanking me for what I’d done. But I also received a lot of hate mail. The government made it clear that they were coming after those sources.
Q. What made you become a journalist, and how did you go about becoming a national security/intelligence reporter?
I got into journalism a little late when I was deciding whether I wanted to go into academia. Once I got an internship with The Post, everything clicked. I wanted to stay here, but there was not a job, so I went to the St. Petersburg Times and had a blast. At first, what drew me was the diversity of what we do every day. Realizing that you could make a difference covering a coal miners’ strike or prison overcrowding was very exciting.
I was a Pentagon reporter for seven years when I took time off to write a book. I loved the beat but decided I needed to do something fresh. I foolishly thought intel would be like the Pentagon, and it’s not. In the military, you can be embedded with people, hang out with all levels and show them who you really are. Relationships are pretty straightforward. You can yell about differences because those sources are accustomed to debating the role of media in government. Intel is such an insular group; it’s much more difficult to develop relationships and trust with sources. … Now what excites me is the privilege of being able to be inside the government bureaucracy, which is critical to understanding where we are as country. The common denominator in all my reporting experience is that it has to be a challenge or it’s no fun.
Q. Did you experience difficulties as a woman on this or the Pentagon beat?
Not really. Of the thousands of people in the military units and commanders I traveled with, I think there were only maybe a dozen women. I was with infantry and regional commanders, the great majority of whom are men. A couple of funny things have happened. Once, traveling on a plane, I was the only reporter, and there was one other woman. Typically the military change into different uniforms before they arrive overseas, and they all start changing in front of me, completely forgetting I was there. When I went to Africa with Special Forces, they painted the bathroom pink in my honor, which turned out to be a great thing for me.
Q. Slate media critic Jack Shafer singled you out as a reporter who uses confidential and anonymous sources with such specificity that you give the story credibility, and give the government fewer opportunities to knock your reporting. How did you go about describing your sources without naming them in the CIA black sites (Nov. 2, 2005) story?
As we got further and further along — I think that was about the fifth story of the year in a series of stories that relied on anonymous sources — the government made it clear it did not like the leaks, and so we ran up against a novel problem. As a paper we want to tell readers as much as possible about our sources, but then if we go too far, will that point to a pool of people? If there’s a choice between not putting something in the paper and putting it in with not a great reference, I’d rather put it in. The challenge is not just how we characterize a confidential source, but also the specificity of information that source provides, which can point to a person or pool of people.
Q. Were you at all worried that the sourcing on your stories would cause readers to question their veracity?
There are readers who do question the stories, and I don’t think I could have put a name on the source and convinced them of the accuracy. However, the government has never come out and said the stories are inaccurate. That can be viewed as further confirmation of their truth. It matters that I had a track record on other stories that were controversial and yet weren’t questioned for accuracy. … It’s critical because you cannot do the job of intelligence reporter without anonymous sources. That’s not our (journalism’s) choice; it’s their rules.
Q. Your stories were a lessen in the value of painstaking reporting, cultivation of sources, patience and well-crafted narrative. How did you spend your days working on this story and also reporting on regular beat stories?
This beat is one in which you have to sew together scraps, not even big pieces, of fabric. A scrap is so little you don’t even know how it’s important, but it can lead to something that leads to something that leads to the name of the thing. You have to pay attention to those things. There’s no way my brain can handle it all, so I put as much as I can somewhere in notes, in categories, because I never know when something takes on meaning. This really involves paying attention to what people say, keeping it all organized, even while you’re working on a daily.
For example, it took maybe year to put the Salt Pit (published March 5, 2005) story together. I got an inkling that there may have been a death and hypothermia separately at the Afghanistan prison. Those scraps were all spread over a long period time. The piece about the guy who was supposed to be in charge was a painstaking process. …I really focused on the liaison project between the CIA and foreign governments. What are these relationships like? How are they pulled together? These things are overlapping, so I would double and triple file them. Eventually, the scraps started to take shape.
But I also want to protect people because it’s important to work on ways to deal with people so that they don’t feel they are putting themselves in jeopardy by talking to you. I also wanted to explore how this young case officer came to be in charge of this prison in the context of the times (post-9/11).
Q. How do you balance a demanding reporting career with being a mom?
A. I did lot of the traveling when my kids were younger. When I was going to Afghanistan, my daughter kept asking what I would do if I got shot? I joked that I was traveling with (Secretary of Defense Donald) Rumsfeld, and that I should not stand too close. But she was insistent that I answer this question. So I told her how I would have good military doctors around me, and that I would be OK. I don’t do so much traveling now, maybe a couple trips a year. Having a supportive spouse is hugely important, as is having a backup baby sitter. On the other hand, the kids know the potential dangers and put their foot down on Iraq. I was not about to push them.
The thing that has grounded me the most in life is that no matter how important you think the story, there’s someone who wants you to give them a kiss goodnight or wants help with homework. It’s a really good thing because when you walk in the door, they don’t want to hear about the story, they ask, “Where’s dinner?”
Q. The latest Pew study suggests that more people thought the Swift banking story hurt more than helped the counterterrorism efforts. Journalism is under attack from a government that wants it silenced and a public that seems to go along. What is feeding this?
A. I think it’s event-driven and is led by 9/11 and how we think of ourselves in light of 9/11. Our job might be hard, but it’s so critically important right now. The stakes are huge of what we’re doing and how we’re moving forward and away from 9/11. I don’t know who else is going to help people through that — in terms of figuring out what’s still right and wrong and what we really want to do about really hard questions.
Q. Are you worried about getting subpoenaed?
I get asked that a lot. There are so many things to worry about, why worry about things you can’t control? I do think about it, though. I guess a shield law would help, but there’s not really a legislative remedy for this. All government wants to control information. … The difference in this government is that there is a freeze on real dialogue between professionals — me and them inside. It’s like they don’t understand dialogue in public is fundamental to building consensus even if it means getting jabbed when you go in the wrong direction.
Q. You recently snapped back at conservative commentator Bill Bennett over the leaks issue on Meet the Press (July 2, 2006). How did that feel?
By that time in my book he was in a different category. It’s one thing to criticize The Post or me on the war on terror, but he decides to call me a traitor. He doesn’t know my motives or me, and he continued to say things that were incorrect about the law. No one was challenging him, and maybe it’s because we don’t know enough about the law. I felt he needed to be corrected in a way that would be somewhat powerful. (Priest told the panel that contrary to Bennett and popular opinion, it’s not a crime to publish classified information with some specific exceptions. She likened it to some wanting to make casino gambling a crime, but it is not. Bennett admitted in the past to having a gambling problem, and Priest’s comment was viewed as a direct hit.) It’s not something I look forward to having to do.