Three years ago, Washington Post reporter Craig Whitlock got an unusual tip: Michael Flynn, the retired Army general who was President’s Trump’s first national security adviser, had given an unpublished interview to federal officials about U.S. failures in the war in Afghanistan. When Whitlock asked the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction to release the interview under the Freedom of Information Act, SIGAR refused.
Whitlock then heard SIGAR had conducted hundreds of other interviews with U.S. officials in charge of the war for its “Lessons Learned” project. He asked for those as well. That marked the start of a legal fight that would eventually pry loose more than 2,000 documents revealing that presidents, generals and diplomats had misled the American public about the war for nearly two decades.
In interview after interview, U.S. officials bluntly admitted the war had been an unmitigated disaster. “We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan — we didn’t know what we were doing,” Douglas Lute, a three-star Army general who served as war czar during the Bush and Obama administrations, told federal officials.
The inspector general spent five years and $11 million compiling the interviews but fought at every turn to keep them hidden. When Whitlock finally obtained the interviews, it became clear that SIGAR had omitted from its “Lessons Learned” reports the harshest criticisms of the war, as well as the names of 90 percent of those interviewed.
The Post had to sue not once, but twice, to compel the records’ release. The federal agency disingenuously argued that officials were whistleblowers, had been interviewed for law enforcement purposes or had discussed classified matters of national security. SIGAR even contended that The Post had no standing to sue because the FOIA had been been filed by Whitlock, not the news organization itself.
Slowly, SIGAR produced records in batches, but in doing so redacted 366 names from 428 interviews. Whitlock was not deterred: Using other details, he identified 32 of the redacted names. Many were of significant public interest including Zalmay Khalilzad, the former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan now negotiating for the Trump administration with the Taliban.
Whitlock logged the interviews in a database, indexing them by topics. He supplemented the records with a cache of unpublicized memos by former defense secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld obtained by the National Security Archive, a nonprofit research institute. Methodically he synthesized the material, bringing out the themes that informed the six stories. A team of designers, graphic artists, photo editors, audio producers and others helped create and refine a multimedia package to convey the real story of the Afghan war. And The Post made the underlying documents available in full so that Americans could learn what has been done in their name.
The Afghanistan Papers project demonstrates the indispensable role that journalism plays in a democracy by challenging the government’s attempts to conceal the truth about strategic failures in a faraway war. We proudly nominate The Afghanistan Papers for the Al Neuharth Innovation in Investigative Journalism Award.