Inside the NYTimes: Reflecting on a Deep Investigation

From a Times Insider column by Emmett Lindner headlined “Reflecting on a Deep Investigation”:

In early 2016, Azmat Khan, a journalist for The New York Times Magazine, began an investigation that lasted more than five years and was part of a group of Times articles that won the Pulitzer Prize this year for international reporting. In the series, Ms. Khan uncovered systemic flaws behind the air wars conducted by the United States in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria and the lack of transparency surrounding more than 1,300 reports of civilian casualties. In a recent interview, Ms. Khan reflected on the reporting challenges and what the experience taught her.

How did you begin this investigation?

In early 2016, I was looking at the statistics coming out of the war against ISIS. I remember one day looking at a newspaper and seeing a claim — completely unverified — that the United States had killed 25,000 ISIS fighters. I knew that at the same time they had admitted killing up to 21 civilians. I just thought, well, can I check them?

As I tried to do a sample in Iraq, I met a man named Basim Razzo, who, in the middle of the night, realized that his wife, daughter, brother and nephew had all been killed in an airstrike. He later on learned that the United States had uploaded a video of that bombing, calling his and his brother’s homes a car bomb facility. As I got to know Basim and investigated his case, it was really important to understand not just what went wrong in that specific scenario, but also how frequently that was occurring.

So I looked at a sample of 103 airstrikes in three areas formerly held by ISIS; I found that one in five of these strikes is killing a civilian, a rate that was 31 times higher than what the government was claiming. And in the case of Basim, I was able to get my hands on a document that showed what went wrong. I thought, I’ve learned so much from this one alone about the mistakes they made, can I get my hands on all of these others?

It wasn’t enough to just get my hands on the documents. I needed to match as many as I could to people on the ground to truly do what I know our government isn’t doing.

How did you personally handle such a long and emotional investigation?

I was constantly meeting people who were grappling with pain larger than I could feel or understand. I got to know lots of survivors who showed a depth of character and strength; it’s hard not to take inspiration from them.

A lot of them would see miracles after death. They would talk about something that gave them hope, or how it reinvigorated their faith in God. Regardless of whatever my own views on the afterlife are, there’s something really powerful about seeing people take the most devastating losses of their life and find strength. So questions I asked everyone were: How are you coping? What do you do to take care of yourself?

Because I’m an investigative journalist, there’s kind of a quest to uncover information, to be in the pursuit of truth. It took years to get the documents, and then it took a long time to match them to people. But when I was able to match them to people and tell them what the military thought, they were getting something from it and I was getting something from it. You can’t put a price on that.

I think it’s the most important reporting I’ve ever done. And as difficult as things are, it just felt so important that I was I was honored to do it.

What were some of the challenges in reporting a story of this length?

I think anything that takes this long of a period of time can weigh heavily on you. I went aggressively in on the coalition to get information. I secured an embed despite them trying not to give me one. Very few journalists have ever gotten embeds at that nerve center in Qatar [the American air base], which is where I got in. They did everything they could to not give me that.

It was worth it in the end. But it was very hard for me to be patient. I don’t talk about this very often, but you have to be ready to go when the world cares. I had a longer timeline for myself; I wanted to publish originally this year, but the second the Kabul strike happened, I knew it was time.

Did this investigation change how you will think about reporting?

It’s been such a learning process, so I feel like I’m constantly adapting to what I’m learning and doing.

I think I would focus more on the narrative. I really enjoyed doing the piece for “The Daily” because you could hear people in their own words. I get messages based on what I report and publish, and “The Daily” pieces are what people write to me about. They’re like, “I’ll never forget this grandmother who said her family died without eating dinner.” I’d like to allow people more direct access to hearing and seeing some of them.

Regardless of how people feel about what this reporting reveals at its heart, something that I think is pretty undeniable is that there is a dereliction of duty. The military says it cares about accountability, but if they truly did, they would be doing this work and they are not. And so it’s important to hear what that sounds like and looks like

 

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