Going Behind the Curtain

Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter says 'now people expect more' from the media and the media must deliver

Feb 4, 2009 at 2:06 pm

Forget fictional characters like Lois Lane and Murphy Brown. Dana Priest is a real-life role model for delivering powerful investigative journalism that shakes the corridors of power.

If it weren’t for Priest’s curiosity and persistence, most Americans probably never would have learned about their government’s use of secret prisons throughout the world and its practice of “extraordinary rendition,” covertly shipping terrorist suspects and others to nations where they could be tortured without fear of legal ramifications.

Closer to home, it was also Priest’s groundbreaking work with a colleague at The Washington Post that revealed the deplorable conditions injured U.S. veterans endured at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, from mold and bug and mice infestation to outdated equipment and shoddy facilities. The revelations prompted a congressional investigation and personal attention by President Bush.

Both series won Priest a Pulitzer Prize, in 2006 and 2008 respectively.

Priest recently appeared at Northern Kentucky University to discuss her work and will return to the area Monday to give a lecture at Miami University in Oxford.

Since joining The Post’s staff in 1986, Priest has covered some of the newspaper’s major beats — including the Pentagon and the intelligence community — along with first-hand reporting from U.S. military actions in Panama (1989), Iraq (1990) and Kosovo (1999).

But it was her series of articles in late 2005 about the existence of “black sites,” a network of CIA-operated prisons in Eastern Europe, that gained her the most public notoriety. While many government watchdog groups and civil libertarians praised Priest’s work, some conservatives alleged her revelations harmed national security.

In fact, the Bush Administration tried to squelch the articles and persuaded The Post not to publish the names of the nations where the prisons were located. Priest based her articles on information from current and former intelligence officials on three continents. As a result, the CIA gave polygraph tests to numerous employees, trying to ferret out her sources.

“The intelligence world is by far the most difficult area of anything I’ve covered,” Priest says. “Just about all of it’s in the classified realm, and people’s jobs are at stake (if they become a source).

“It really takes time to meet people and develop their trust. It’s mostly people who either are or used to be in the intelligence field or are in an oversight or regulatory capacity for those agencies. It’s a pretty small circle. In the case of the black sites, there were people who were worried about what was happening.”

The prisons were a matter of compelling public interest, and Priest wasn’t daunted by criticism from neo-cons and the Fox News crowd.

“You have to be pretty thick-skinned about what you do as a reporter,” she says. “You’re going behind the curtain and showing things that people don’t want to be seen.”

Priest’s series on Walter Reed developed when an appalled volunteer at the military hospital told her anecdotes about the facility.

“The stories I heard made my jaw drop,” she says.

Given the secretive, close-knit nature of most bureaucracies — especially military ones — Priest knew she and her colleague, Anne Hull, should gather as much on-site information as possible from patients and their families before confronting Army commanders, who likely would cut off access.

“The trick in that story, frankly, was not to be caught by the Walter Reed authorities,” Priest says. “Our rule was we could never lie to anybody if they asked who we were. So we avoided being in rooms at the same time as colonels or other personnel who might ask who we were and what we were doing there.”

Priest and Hull, along with their photographer, found that fed-up patients were all too willing to help.

“We got a good reception from the soldiers because the conditions were much worse than we thought,” she says.

The series caused public outrage and sparked the ouster of U.S. Army Secretary Francis J. Harvey. President Bush later appointed retired Sen. Bob Dole and former Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala to review the healthcare system for wounded soldiers and recommend changes.

Some improvements have been made, Priest says, including an increase in the number of caseworkers and more money allocated to help treat veterans suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

“They have improved, but not to the point that many people would like them to,” she adds. “It’s a work in progress.”

Priest, 49, earned a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of California at Santa Cruz. She lives in Washington, D.C., with her husband, William Goodfellow, who is director of the Center for International Policy.

For some time after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Priest’s classic style of journalism that looks under rocks and questions authority fell out of fashion with a shell-shocked public. After the Iraq War’s mismanagement, the botched response to Hurricane Katrina and scandals involving lobbyists, among other items, the public seems ready once more for an active, aggressive press corps, she says.

“The pendulum has swung from the beginning of 9/11 until now,” Priest says. “For about four or five years, a lot of people considered it as helping the enemy. Now people expect more. The media got beat up for not being more aggressive in checking the story about WMDs (at the launch of the Iraq War). We’ve seen what can happen when the press isn’t doing its job.”

Priest believes Americans have grown tired of the cable TV talk show culture of people yelling at each other and are yearning for substantive sources of news and information. Whether the troubled newspaper industry fills that role, however, remains to be seen.

Asked what she would tell a young person considering journalism as a major, Priest replies, “I would encourage them, by all means, to do that. It’s such an important function, and it’s so much fun. None of us ever think we’re paid what we’re worth, but it’s such a great profession.

“The difference will just be in the way news is delivered to people, whether it be online or in some other form, not in the gathering. We’ll be an entirely different country if journalists stop questioning what their government is doing.”

DANA PRIEST will present a lecture, “Adventures in Journalism,” at 4 p.m. Feb. 9 at Miami University’s Hall Auditorium. The event is free and open to the public. Info: [email protected] or 513-529-5893.