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Gutman, Lasseter and Schofield

'I guess you can call it torture'

SHOWCASE | June 16, 2008

McClatchy reporters traveled to 11 countries to interview 66 freed Guantanamo and Afghanistan prison detainees. The result is a stunning 5-part series and multi-media presentation titled 'Guantanamo: Beyond the Law.'

By Barry Sussman and Dan Froomkin

The headlines in the current McClatchy Newspapers series on men detained at Guantanamo and in Afghanistan tell quite a story: Sunday: “We got the wrong guys.” Monday: “I guess you can call it torture.” Tuesday: “A school for Jihad.” The stories bear out the headlines and then some.

It’s a stunning bit of reporting, eight months in the works, done by the McClatchy Washington bureau. These editors and reporters, of course, are the successors to the Knight-Ridder Washington bureau — the lone mainstream-media organization credited for its skeptical, forthright, consistent questioning and reporting in the run-up to the Iraq war.

What follows is an online Q&A, with questions by Barry Sussman and Dan Froomkin of NiemanWatchdog, and answers by David Westphal, the McClatchy Washington editor.

Q. This story is enormous in scope—a five-day series, numerous videos, photos, slide shows and other graphics, as well as documents and memos depicting abuse of detainees by Americans in Guantanamo and Afghanistan. What made you decide to undertake so big a project?

WESTPHAL. The idea came from Roy Gutman, our foreign editor, in one of his first days on the job more than a year and a half ago. He was having lunch with Mark Seibel, his predecessor, and the two of them hatched the idea of talking to as many released detainees as possible to tell a largely untold story: Who were these people? Were they really the "worst of the worst" as the administration said?  Why were they held so long without being charged? And the idea just kept growing from there.

Q.  Were people in the Bush Administration cooperative as you did your reporting, or can you spell out instances when some of them tried to block you? Perhaps people in the White House and the State Department and the military?

WESTPHAL. No one sought to block us from finding out the truth.  Rather, it was a matter of the administration not being willing to discuss the detainees' individual cases.  One can guess at the reasons, but only guess.

Q. People may say you were gullible to believe what some of these ex-detainees told you. What’s your response to that?

WESTPHAL. We wanted to hear their stories, but then do everything we could to check them out.  In places like Afghanistan and Pakistan, where about two-thirds of the interviews occurred, that was often exceedingly difficult.  But you see in the profiles we did of all 66 detainees that there is often confirmation of their stories, while  in others the reporters showed extreme skepticism, to the point of calling their accounts far-fetched.  The Afghanistan government, which itself has investigated many of the detainees, was an important part of the story.  Officials there, allied with the U.S. government, would tell us that this particular detainee or that was turned over to U.S. forces as part of a tribal dispute, or for bounty money.  In some cases it was simply impossible to know what to believe, and we tried to make those distinctions.

Q. You guys (back when you were Knight-Ridder) were almost alone in your relentlessly skeptical coverage of the administration's public-relations campaign in the run-up to war in Iraq. Now here you are with a massive, thoroughly researched story on important issues that other news organizations are largely ignoring. In both cases, while the stories certainly required a lot of diligent reporting, they weren't exactly hiding, either. It wasn't a question of stumbling on a scoop, it was a question of pursuing a story that others chose not to pursue. So what do you think makes you different from other news organizations?

WESTPHAL. Other news organizations indeed have done important work in this area, so I wouldn't characterize it that way.  We thought we'd found a new approach to finding out some untold truths about the detainees.  One big difficulty with this approach is that it took enormous resources to pull it off.  Tom Lasseter spent most of a year doing it, and the project required significant resources stateside as well, so you had to be willing and able to spend a lot of time and money on something like this.  As for the bureau's record, this project is clearly consistent with our "truth to power" motto.  Accountability reporting is what we do best.

Q. In ordinary times, news of the systematic abuse of innocents at the hands of U.S. officials would lead the media and the public to the heights of outrage. What's different this time?

WESTPHAL. To be clear, the abuse we found primarily occurred at prisons in Afghanistan in the early part of the war.  The issues we explored in Guantanamo were principally the question of whether we were detaining the right people, and what happened to them after being released.  As for reaction to stories of abuse, I think some people are outraged, while others see it as a not-surprising result of the disarray and uncertainty and fear that took hold after the 9/11 attacks.

Q. How many times had the people you talked to been contacted by reporters before? By government investigators?

WESTPHAL. A few of the former detainees, principally a handful of Europeans, have been the subject of innumerable stories in their home countries and have even written a few books.  The majority, in Afghanistan and Pakistan, have remained more obscure and we were often the first to speak with them.  All of them, of course, were interrogated at Guantanamo, but I'm not aware of additional government follow-up -- except by their home governments.

Q. The reporters for this story were Tom Lasseter and Matthew Schofield. Can you tell us a little about them? Also, is there anyone else—an editor, perhaps—who deserves singling out for credit?

WESTPHAL. Tom is a former Baghdad bureau chief who was in the process of being assigned to our Moscow bureau when he got drafted for this project.  Matt is our former Berlin bureau chief, now back at the Kansas City Star, who also conducted a handful of interviews.  Tom did most of the interviewing here, and what's important to say is how difficult and dangerous this reporting was.  Tom ventured into exceedingly unsafe areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan, often not really know what or who he was going to find when he arrived.  It is a cliché to say Tom risked his personal safety for this project, but that's indeed what happened.  In addition to Roy Gutman and Mark Seibel, bureau chief John Walcott helped quarterback this project, with huge assistance from news desk chief Beryl Adcock, photo editor Linda Epstein, graphics editor Judy Treible, Web gurus Jim Van Nostrand and Tish Wells and lots of support from McClatchy Interactive in Raleigh. [Note: Seibel was a 1992 Nieman fellow; Schofield a 2002 Nieman.]

Q. If you could pick two or three of the main findings, what would they be?

WESTPHAL. The United States detained, for years, some people who shouldn't have been held at all.  In the early going, in Afghanistan, some were subjected to wrongful abuse.  And some were released from Guantanamo more radicalized than when they entered.  It should be noted, as the project has, that Guantanamo also houses some of the masterminds behind the 9/11 attacks.

Q. What has been the response from the government to the stories so far?

WESTPHAL. The administration says that it has investigated every credible accusation of abuse and held people accountable as a result.  And it says it has gotten valuable information as a result of interrogating the detainees.

Q. Coverage this important shouldn’t just sit on the Web; rather, it should have national impact. Are there any ways in which you are trying to get the story to a broader audience?

WESTPHAL. Nearly all of McClatchy's newspapers had the project on their front page on Sunday, plus many more subscribers to the McClatchy Tribune news service did as well, so it's had a strong debut.  Plus, these days sitting on the Web is a pretty good place to sit.  The project is very deep.  We did in-depth profiles on all 66 former detainees, and the detail that's brought to life is very interesting.  One small example:  One of the former detainees now works at a call center in Pakistan, using his excellent English skills to hawk mortgages to people back in the United States.  We hope, and expect, that this work will have a long life on the Web.

Click here for entry into the McClatchy series, starting with a table of contents.

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