Reporter negotiates danger, ethical questions
MIDDLEBURY — Classified documents, CIA ghosts, torture crimes and campaign fund funneling — these all sound like a far cry from life in Vermont. And yet, Jane Mayer, who got her start in journalism writing for the Rutland Herald, has found herself investigating and writing about each of these topics and more in her time as a staff writer for The New Yorker magazine.
Mayer returned to Vermont on Monday to talk about her experiences as a journalist for Middlebury College’s second “Meet the Press” lecture of the fall. All those in the full-to-brimming lecture hall — including her Rutland Herald editor Stephen Terry — turned to focus on Mayer as she began her talk with a story, dating back five years ago.
“I was sitting in my car in northern Virginia at the curb of a nice yellow farmhouse in the suburbs waiting for a ghost to come home,” Mayer said. “He’s not really a ghost, but that’s what he is referred to as in the trade because he was an agent/officer of the CIA — a man named Mark Swanner who was 46 years old and who I knew from things that I had seen that were classified.”
Several years earlier, she said, Swanner had been on duty at a prison in Iraq and in charge of an interrogation that went “terribly wrong.” An Iraqi prisoner, Mayer explained, was crucified to death.
“I knew that he would remain a ghost and never really come to life for the American public unless I could tell his story,” Mayer said.
But she couldn’t tell his story unless she could confront him and give him a chance to comment. The New Yorker, she explained — and all those employed by the magazine — operate under a certain set of standards that had led her to that curb in northern Virginia.
“Fairness and accuracy are in (The New Yorker’s) DNA,” she said. “We’re not about to go running a story about somebody possibly having presided over a homicide without trying to get a hold of them.”
As she waited on the curb that day, Mayer began to consider her situation.
“I began to wonder, ‘How did somebody like me end up in a job like this?’ I was literally waiting to trap a man into talking about killing someone, possibly in front of his wife and kids at his home.”
Though Mayer waited for hours, Swanner didn’t return home that night. Her ambush interview had failed, but the next day she caught him on the phone.
“Never call me again,” a man’s voice said, “and never step foot on my property again.”
Though Mayer did not receive what she referred to as “an Oprah-like outpouring of information,” she was at least able to say that Mark Swanner was not a ghost. He was very much alive — and so was her story.
Mayer went on to describe for her Middlebury audience her process for reporting this story, which involved everything from the leaking of a sealed record from the court martial case to phone calls from the CIA telling her that printing Swanner’s name could lead to his death.
Once people heard that Swanner was partly responsible for the crucifixion of Iraqi prisoner Manadel al-Jamadi at the Abu Ghraib prison in November 2003, they might start to come after him, seeking revenge. It was up to Mayer and her editors to make the call on whether or not to run the story or withhold his name.
Deciding what to publish was, and still is, one of the most important and burdensome roles of a journalist, according to Mayer.
“We are sometimes on the front line making these calls about where the line should be drawn between state secrets and the public’s right to know,” she said.
Mayer explained that reporters are often given four main reasons for withholding information from print:
• American lives could be at stake.
• Reporters could disclose sources and methods used by the government to gather intelligence, such as CIA methods of interrogation.
• Reporters might be disrupting an ongoing intelligence operation, or might tip off an enemy to a future intelligence operation.
• Showing the brutality of U.S. operations, including pictures of what torture victims look like, might trigger a backlash endangering U.S. troops.
“All of these arguments are obviously very uncomfortable,” Mayer said. “You don’t want to be in a position where you’re undercutting the serious national security issues. But on the other side, I think there are some very persuasive issues, as well.”
Withholding information, she said, can also mean real trouble.
“If we keep the officials protected, no one can ever hold them accountable as individuals,” she said. “If they are doing something wrong, there will be no consequences or correction.”
Mayer and her editors chose to publish Swanner’s name.
“One of the most important roles of a reporter is to hold people in our government accountable, to connect the dots between policies and their consequences, and I also thought that it was really important for our readers to see something that’s a little more subtle,” she said. “Torturers are not monsters. They are people who live in nice, yellow farmhouses in suburban culs de sac who have barbecues and coach their kids’ sports games. Basically, in essence, they are just like you and me. Inhumanity is part of being human.”
The process of making these calls is “messy” and “imperfect” according to Mayer.
“We are one part of the big process,” Mayer said on behalf of all reporters. “I’m not an intelligence official, I’m not a military veteran, I’ve never interrogated a suspected terrorist — so, I’m probably not completely competent to stand in judgment of somebody like Mark Swanner.”
But the press does serve an important role in this political puzzle Mayer told her audience of students, faculty and members of the wider community.
“We’re able to air an awful lot of our own problems in this country, very important ones, and get them in front of the country,” Mayer said.
And though there have been cases where Mayer has chosen not to publish, she argues against having “state secrets,” and she is generally pro-leak.
“I’m not in the business of being a reporter so that I can just share information with my editors,” Mayer said. “I want the public to know.”
Tamara Hilmes is at [email protected]