From AJR, March 1999 issue
Open Your Mind
Preconceived notions too often stand in the way of investigative reporting, a New York Times editor warns.
By Stephen Engelberg
Stephen Engelberg, assistant to the managing editor of the New York Times, works on investigative projects. Before moving to New York as the projects editor on the foreign desk, he was an investigative reporter in the Times' Washington bureau.
DAY-TO-DAY, INVESTIGATIVE reporting is about sweat and perseverance. Forget about the widely held view that government officials ``leak" embarrassing stories to eager reporters who sit waiting for the phone to ring. You know--and I know--that hardly anything of value falls from the sky like manna from heaven.
There is, however, something more important than tenacity. In the beginning, I would argue, it is not the work, but the idea, that is critical--a willingness to open our minds and look at things without preconceptions.
What does this mean? For those of us privileged enough to ply our trade in democracies, the most dangerous form of censorship is the one we impose on ourselves.
More often than many of us would acknowledge, we miss the truly amazing stories by circumscribing our reporting at the outset. We premise our inquiries on assumptions about how people would plausibly act. ``No," we tell ourselves, ``they would never do that."
In fact, recent history is the chronicle of one implausible turn and twist after another. Who could have imagined that an American president with a commanding lead in the polls would join the conspiracy to cover up the burglary of his opposing party's headquarters?
Who could picture a White House evading a congressional prohibition by selling arms to the Ayatollah Khomeini and funneling the profits through Swiss banks to contra rebels?
And then, of course, there's the notion of an intern who had sex in the Oval Office and saved her stained dress as an insurance policy or keepsake.
You couldn't make this stuff up! And, fortunately for us, we don't have to.
Speeches by journalists are typically one inspiring tale after another, which can be roughly summarized as ``How I Got the Big Story." I would like to focus on a few instances from my own career when the big fish got away, when I was my own censor. It's humbling but instructive.
O NE MORNING IN 1986 , I was riding the bus to my job at the New York Times' Washington bureau. I was reading the Washington Post and turned to the daily piece by Jack Anderson, a syndicated columnist.
It said the Reagan administration was selling arms to Iran to pave the way for the release of American hostages. It sounded like something worth checking out. So the next day, I talked to my colleague Les Gelb, a New York Times reporter who had once been a high-level official at the State Department.
I said, ``Les, what do we do?" and he said, ``We should look at this. I'll make some calls. You should make some calls." And so we did.
I had been covering the big spy cases of 1985 and 1986. I didn't really have great sources. Everybody I spoke with told me Anderson's column was ludicrous, but one person said I should track down someone named Michael Ledeen, a former consultant to the National Security Council.
This was in the days before the Internet and search engines, and so I turned to my secret files, the suburban Maryland phone book, to find the phone number. Ledeen turned out to be a somewhat eccentric fellow. He said he had been out of government a year, but if I wanted to come to his house some afternoon for a pasta lunch and some fine Italian coffee, he'd be happy to have me as a guest. Who could resist an invitation like that?
I went and had my pasta, and in the time-honored tradition of our business, I waited until I was walking out the door, in his driveway, to ask the only question that actually interested me.
``So," I said, trying to be casual, ``what about this Jack Anderson column?"
He laughed and said he couldn't talk about it. In fact, he said, he had taken a vow of silence on the whole subject of Iran and his work for the National Security Council. ``Try me in about 1996," he said.
A more experienced reporter might have understood what this man was trying to say, might have grasped that Ledeen was hinting that this was well worth examining more closely. But I didn't get it. And, in fairness, neither did Gelb, who rounded up an impressive array of denials.
As we look back at this little tale, it all becomes distressingly clear. Gelb's denials reflected the fact that he had been talking to people who had been cut out of the Iran operation, which in its early phases was run entirely by an obscure lieutenant colonel named Oliver L. North and our very own Michael Ledeen.
When you think about it in hindsight, the elements of this story were there for the taking. The American hostages were a well-known obsession of President Reagan and his aides. Iran ultimately controlled Hezbollah, a radical Shiite group in Lebanon, which controlled the hostages. Tehran needed weapons, and the American tilt toward Iraq in the Iran-Iraq war was just that, a tilt, not a commitment.
It all made perfect sense once you removed the preconception that selling arms to the Ayatollah was inconceivable, that they would never do that. I had read Anderson's column wearing blinders. It was a dangerous way to begin reporting any story. Sad to say, it was hardly the last time.
A few months later, a C-123 cargo plane was lumbering along near the border of Nicaragua, within range of Sandinista gunners. The plane was hit by a missile, and as it fell out of the sky, the mercenary hired to kick supplies out the door parachuted safely to the ground.
His name was Eugene Hasenfus. Within days, the Sandinistas held a press conference, showing off their prize captive and a cache of documents salvaged from the plane's wreckage.
My boss, one of journalism's best known Tennessean-Albanians, made a beeline for my desk, as I was then covering the CIA. ``Sounds like an agency operation to me," growled Bill Kovach, the Times' Washington bureau chief. ``Better get on it."
It seemed implausible.
For those of you who weren't steeped in this, a bit of background: That obscure lieutenant colonel, Oliver North, was keeping the contras alive with a secret operation run from the White House. A ragtag team of former military officers and Cuban hotheads was dropping weapons to contras.
It was unclear, some thought, whether the congressional ban on aiding the contras applied to the White House. One thing was clear: The CIA was barred from providing any military assistance to the rebels, and congressional intelligence committees had repeatedly sent staff members to Central America to make sure the rules were being followed.
Shortly after Hasenfus' capture, the seasoned Times correspondent in El Salvador, James LeMoyne, called me with what sounded to me like a very wild story. It seems he had been told by his sources in El Salvador that a Salvadoran air force base just outside the capital was being used by contra rebels to ferry supplies to Nicaragua, Honduras and Costa Rica. And, LeMoyne said excitedly, ``Guess what? The local CIA officials in Salvador and elsewhere are directly involved in this whole operation. They are blatantly violating the law."
I complimented my colleague on his breakthrough, but urged him to be cautious about the CIA aspect. The agency's operatives, I reminded him, were masters at the use of what is known in the espionage business as cut-outs, hiring intermediaries to do the dirty work.
The CIA's mantra is ``plausible deniability," setting things up so that agency officers can't be directly connected to an operation. It was, I told LeMoyne, almost inconceivable that CIA officers would turn up at a contra base and direct operations right in front of foreign military officers, at the very moment when congressional investigators were swarming over those same bases looking for this behavior. Nobody, I said, could be that stupid. They wouldn't do that.
Well, LeMoyne's story from El Salvador ran, including the allegations about the CIA. There were many red-faced denials from the agency. It was months before I fully grasped the enormity of what had happened. Emboldened by their instructions from North, several of the CIA's officers in Central America had done exactly what I and most other Washington-based savants believed unlikely. They had played a direct role in the contras' military operations. LeMoyne's sources, it turned out, were impeccable and, if anything, had underestimated the extent of U.S. involvement in the operation.
Kovach was right, as usual. It had been an agency operation. It is worth recalling that the New York Times was the first paper to report, in September 1985, that North was attempting to keep the contras alive. But after that, we got behind on the story, even as the Miami Herald and Associated Press pushed ahead. Our imagination failed, and that, inevitably, caused our reporting to fail.
T EN YEARS LATER , having managed to find a few stories of note, I came to New York as an editor on the foreign desk. When Flight TWA 800 exploded in the skies over Long Island, I was invited to join the editing team. After all, I had spent a career covering the CIA, terrorism and, in more recent years, had done some significant investigative projects on plane crashes.
One of my first calls was to my old friend Michael Ledeen, who was still a consultant for the government on terrorism issues. Getting right to the point this time, I asked him who the hot suspects were for planting the bomb.
``I don't know," he replied. ``I just had lunch with an old friend from the FAA," he said, ``and this guy says they're going to look at the center fuel tank. You know, they have been known in rare cases to explode."
In those early days, our coverage was driven largely by the assumption that the plane had been downed by a bomb or a missile. The Times' beleaguered aviation correspondent would occasionally say in meetings: ``You know maybe, maybe, it just might be a mechanical flaw."
He didn't get a lot of attention. We learned that a center fuel tank had exploded on a 747 more than a decade earlier. But since then, there had been tens of thousands of takeoffs and landings of 747s without incidents. They don't just blow up on their own, I confidently told our reporters.
Our commitment to the bomb theory deepened when we learned that the FBI had found a substance called PETN on pieces of the wreckage. PETN is an ingredient in explosives.
Government officials begged us to withhold or soften the story, and they came up with some pretty strange reasons that only deepened our resolve to press ahead. They said they were not sure how the PETN got onto the plane. Perhaps it had been tracked onto the carpets by soldiers being airlifted to the Persian Gulf War, they said.
We published our story, reporting that scientific tests had detected the presence of PETN. The facts in the story were completely accurate, but we learned to our chagrin a few weeks later that PETN had found its way to the wreckage of Flight 800 in a rather strange way: Federal Aviation Administration officials had put it on the floor months earlier as part of a bomb-sniffing exercise for their corps of canine dogs.
The consensus today is that the plane had a mechanical flaw; the center fuel tank did explode. With perfect hindsight, I would say our coverage, driven by the views of experts and law enforcement personnel, tilted too far toward a theory for which there was little or no evidence. We were insufficiently skeptical. We didn't appreciate the extent to which those nice guys from Boeing might themselves be just a little biased in their certainty that center fuel tanks don't explode.
You can easily be blinded by the conventional wisdom blaring out from the television each day. Many news organizations, for example, leaned in the direction of Middle East terrorism the day in 1995 when the Oklahoma City federal building was leveled by a bomb. The attack, after all, had all the classic signatures of Islamic terrorism.
Not everybody was convinced. A tiny Middle Eastern news service in Washington wrote a piece suggesting the attack might have been the work of American militia groups. How did they know? The journalists sat down, looked at the date, April 19--the second anniversary of the federal government's botched raid on the Branch Davidian compound in Texas--pulled together some reporting they had done previously on the subject, and wrote their story. How did they go against the consensus so obvious to all of the experts advancing their views hourly on CNN?
Easy, one of the editors later told the Washington Post: We don't have CNN on in our office during the day. It is much too distracting when you're trying to think.
L ET ME CONCLUDE by asserting the obvious. Thinking is what they pay us for.
It is, perhaps, a bit counterintuitive to be urging talented, investigative journalists to take a jaundiced view of the power structure. After all, isn't the general critique of the media that we strain too hard to establish conspiracies where none exists?
To that, I would reply yes and no. There are, to be sure, disciples of the Oliver Stone School of American Journalism who connect the dots furiously. We all know reporters who add two and two and come up with 144 and say, when challenged on their leaps of logic, ``Come on, don't be naive."
But I would contend there are just as many stories missed by reporters who start their day with a strong sense of what is and what is not likely to happen. They fit each interview, each document, each announcement, into an overall framework of plausibility.
The dirty secret is that we have scant idea of what others would or wouldn't do. Governments and businesses manage to keep their most fascinating activities from public view. Our sense that they wouldn't do that is derived from sketchy information, at best. Most often, it is drawn from glimpses behind the curtain that they allow in the first place.
I would urge that you be guided by what you find, rather than what you think you'll find. The most important question is often the question we don't think we need to ask. Today's paradigm is tomorrow's misguided theory.
We are, as a profession, lousy at predicting the future. So let's not try. As long as we keep our minds open and don't censor ourselves, we all have a chance to seize the next great story when it floats into view. If history teaches us one thing, it is that they would do that.