The Washington foreign policy beat is not normally known for producing great investigative journalism. Well-crafted, thoughtful pieces on globe-shaping diplomacy? Geostrategic analysis? Yes. Hard-hitting investigations? No. Rarely do the day-to-day operations of the Department of State — especially when compared with other government departments — become the stuff of news, which is surprising for a bureaucracy that employs more than 57,000 people here and abroad, oversees an annual budget of nearly $40 billion, and operates in almost 200 countries.
As a longtime student of the department — Condoleezza Rice is the fifth secretary of state I've covered over nearly two decades — I became alarmed in 2005 at what I was picking up in conversations with the rank-and-file, the foreign service officers and civil servants who watch administrations come and go. The word I kept hearing was "politicization." Every President attempts to impose his priorities and worldview on Foggy Bottom (when he is not attempting to ignore it) and, of course, U.S. foreign policy should reflect the priorities of the President chosen by the American people. But the Bush White House has gone beyond previous lines in exhibiting a unique blend of intolerance of dissent, denial of reality, and a penchant to bend every nerve and fiber of government to its own greater glory, not to mention its political message.
McClatchy Newspapers' coverage of State Department management practices — particularly as regards Iraq — was an outgrowth of our extensive scrutiny of other aspects of the Iraq War. The investigative team at McClatchy, of which I'm privileged to be a part, was the only news media organization to consistently question the Bush administration's assertions about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction and ties to al-Qaeda before the March 2003 invasion. We were also the first to reveal that Bush had taken the country to war without a plan for post-war Iraq. To this day, my colleagues in Baghdad continue to do journalism that is recognized for its excellence and the courage of those reporting from there.
The realization that some of the maladies we had uncovered earlier could be infecting the State Department — and here I must admit to a special fondness for the place — led my colleagues and me to break some early stories. We reported in December 2005 that the State Department was using ideological litmus tests to screen private American citizens sent overseas to represent the United States. In February 2006, our reporting revealed how a reorganization of the State Department's arms control bureaus was politicized, leading to an exodus of career experts with decades of combined experience on Iran, North Korea, and the like.
There matters stood for many months. I resolved to keep eyes and ears open, even as the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, policy toward Iran's nuclear weapons program, U.S.-Russia tensions, and similar topics filled my plate.
Like politics, all news is ultimately local. When employees of Blackwater USA opened fire and killed 17 Iraqi civilians in an apparently unprovoked, excessive use of force on September 16, 2007, it was a local story for McClatchy. Local, because one of our papers, The (Raleigh) News & Observer, serves the eastern portion of North Carolina, where Blackwater is headquartered. My colleagues in Raleigh had already done groundbreaking work in examining the company's practices.
For the next seven months, I would find myself investigating what I would eventually come to regard as a three-part, interrelated failure in the State Department's management of the civilian U.S. presence in Iraq. (In that same period, State's head of diplomatic security, its inspector general, and the director of embassy building operations would all resign.)
The oversight of security contractors such as Blackwater.
The conduct of the department's inspector general.
The building of the $736 million new U.S. embassy in Baghdad, the largest American mission in the world.
If Blackwater's actions in Nisour Square that fateful September day were my entry point into the larger story, then the Baghdad Embassy posed some of the more pressing reportorial questions. These, too, turned out to prove a matter of life or death.
The structure will replace the old U.S. Embassy, which occupies one of Hussein's former palaces and is not fully protected against frequent rocket and mortar attacks. Yet there were indications that the new embassy, meant to house 1,000 employees, could be a fire trap; that its physical security systems did not function properly; that, in short, the contractor had cut corners with the tolerance, if not connivance, of State Department officials and contractors determined to deliver the buildings on time, without regard for how the eventual product performed.
Why were the State Department's own fire safety specialists, who had earlier found major flaws in the embassy's firefighting systems, now being kept out of the loop?
Why had an individual on contract to the department, who was charged with overseeing embassy construction, attempted to alter the scene when a mortar slammed into one of the new embassy buildings? (His actions got him banned from Iraq by U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker.)
Why had State Department Inspector General Howard J. Krongard studiously refused to allow his inspectors to begin a serious investigation?
Like much in and about Iraq, answers would not come easily. State's buildings chief, retired Army General Charles Williams, who resigned in December 2007, refused to field questions from journalists, affecting an "it's none of your business" attitude. The main contractor, First Kuwaiti General Trading & Contracting Co., sought cover in a contract clause forbidding unauthorized dealings with the news media, but hired a California PR firm, the Saylor Company.
In pursuit of answers, I resorted to what investigative reporters, and all good reporters, do: try any avenue no matter how hopeless it might seem at first, never take no for an answer and, above all, never, never lose heart in getting at the truth.
Along the way, I dealt with sources not normally a part of the diplomatic beat: blue-collar cops, fire inspectors, building contractors. I joined a Web site that is a clearing-house for job openings and gossip for U.S. construction workers and engineers who work overseas. I repeatedly trolled federal contracting databases. I cold-called State Department fire specialists at home at night, dealing with rejection until one, reluctantly, gave me just enough to go with a key story.
These reporting strategies meant that McClatchy became the first news organization to report in detail on a U.S. government criminal investigation of embassy contracting; the first to report that fire safety officials' concerns were ignored in a rush to declare the embassy ready, and the first to report that Williams' successor, Richard Shinnick, had ordered a review of the embassy project upon taking office. My longtime reporting colleague, Jonathan Landay, provided assists at several critical junctures.
Then, as these stories flowed out, people began reaching out to us — including some sources who had originally declined to cooperate.
There were moments of drama, laced with humor. One evening, at the end of a frustratingly unproductive day on this and other stories, I stopped by my mailbox on the way out the door. There, I found a large white package, with no return address. (Finding this treasure-trove in my mail cubbyhole violated my longstanding belief that nothing of real news interest ever comes via "snail mail.") Inside were memos, e-mails, photographs and inspection reports. They suggested that a top aide to Williams had certified key elements of Baghdad Embassy's numerous buildings' firefighting systems as ready for operation, despite concerns to the contrary by the State Department's in-house fire safety specialists.
To this day, I don't know who sent me these materials. Of course, I had to independently corroborate every aspect of what they revealed. As I was feverishly working the story a few days later, I received a phone call from the tipster. We chatted a bit, and I secured a promise he would call me again the next day. One of my editors smartly suggested that, when he called back, I ask if any other news organization had been sent a similar package. To my chagrin, I learned the next day that The Washington Post's Glenn Kessler, who has also done groundbreaking work on State's embassy construction snafus, had received the same materials and was working the story, too. Knowing this, McClatchy sped up its work on the story.
Congress, which was notably absent in providing oversight before the Iraq War, was crucial this time in getting the facts. Much of the story would never have come out if it had not been for Congressman Henry Waxman, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, and his investigators. They listened to whistleblowers, peppered the State Department with demands for documents, and held senior officials to account. Waxman and the relentless queries of his committee single-handedly led to the departure of Krongard, State's hapless inspector general.
Even if some of the charges against State were sensationalized from time to time, and some of the allegations against embassy contractor First Kuwaiti unproven, the system worked this time. The news media and Congress, helped by patriotic civil servants, teamed up to hold the executive branch to account. The new U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, all 104 acres and 27 buildings of it, is due to be occupied by U.S. diplomats and soldiers in May and June. Thanks to the practice of investigative journalism, it will be safer for those who occupy it than it otherwise would have been.
Warren P. Strobel is foreign affairs correspondent in McClatchy's Washington, D.C. bureau. Among other awards, he was part of a team that won a 2005 National Headliner's Award for "How the Bush Administration Went to War in Iraq."