A bizarre turn on the investigative trail

Recently I got a hot tip about U.S. war crimes in Iraq. It led me to some very cold, very weird places.


Mark Benjamin
January 23, 2008 4:45PM (UTC)

When I tell people I'm an investigative reporter, I secretly hope that it sounds sexy and mysterious. I imagine that they might think of me like Bob Woodward, eclipsed by a dark column deep inside a Washington parking garage, waiting for Deep Throat to impart a haiku of wisdom -- "follow the money" -- that will lead me to the noblest of reporting revelations.

The real work, of course, is miraculously less glamorous. I pore endlessly through documents, wait long hours for phone calls to be returned, and type up tedious Freedom of Information Act requests. Occasionally I even follow a mysterious man up a snow-covered mountain in a rental car made to fit a Pygmy.

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Recently I got a hot tip about a Marine who was fresh back from Iraq and was now out of the military. His unit, I was told, had committed war crimes, and this Marine wanted to unburden himself by sharing information about the atrocities. "War crime" -- two words that are news, and even more so when taken together. And there was more: This source was said to have video evidence.

Before a reporter goes off chasing some great white whale and burning up thousands of dollars of his editor's budget in airfare and hotel bills, it is good to have some idea of whether the story is authentic. This can be a tricky balance, however; when a particular lead starts to smell funny or takes a weird turn, it doesn't necessarily mean that it's going nowhere. A shocking truth might yet be waiting around the next bend in the road. An investigative reporter's charge is persistence.

I've done a lot of reporting on veterans' issues, and I got information about this Marine from other veterans who wanted to expose war crimes if indeed they had been committed. This Marine was for real, I was told. So I started talking to this Marine on the phone. We will call him Joe.

In recent years I have talked with many dozens, if not hundreds of veterans. Joe immediately seemed atypical -- on the phone he sounded more like Jeff Spicoli than Chesty Puller. He said "dude" a lot. He told me that he lived in Burlington, Vt., which, if true, would have meant that there was at least one Marine in the Green Mountain State.

Joe talked a pretty good game, though he was a bit vague about, well, everything. The more I made it clear that I was prepared to jump on a plane to Burlington to meet with him, the worse Joe got at returning my phone calls. His cellphone was apparently on the fritz, the battery dead. He suddenly got busy. Still, it's much harder to assess a source on the phone than in person. Sometimes a face-to-face meeting can make all the difference.

In my efforts to track down Joe, I ended up talking to Joe's roommate. We'll call him Hank. Hank confided that, among other things, busy Joe was actually unemployed. Hank also called me "dude."

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Finally, after days of phone calls, I succeeded in getting Hank to physically hand his cellphone over to Joe. Joe then agreed to meet me the next night in Burlington, even though he said that would be tough, because the day after our scheduled meeting he would have to wake up at the crack of dawn and drive four hours to Connecticut to see a V.A. doctor.

Meanwhile, Vermont had just been struck by a blizzard. There was at least a foot of snow on the ground, and air traffic was almost at a standstill. But reporters are supposed to be as intrepid as postal workers in such situations. The next day I left Washington, sweated out a long delay at JFK airport, and after many, many hours landed in snowy, frigid Burlington. When I tuned in to a local radio station inside my rental car, the announcer said it was zero degrees outside.

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I proceeded to the Courtyard Marriott. Joe's phone apparently was on the fritz again. No answer for hours. I paced the checkered carpet of my room. It was too early to hit the minibar. On the tube, MacGyver was powering his alarm clock using some old wires, a russet potato and a glass of water. I wasn't quite desperate enough to crack open the Gideons Bible.

Eventually, I tried the cellphone of Joe's roommate Hank. Hank answered. Apparently, despite my appointment with Joe -- and Joe's early morning visit to the V.A. doctor in Connecticut the next day -- Hank, Joe and a bunch of their friends had developed other plans. "Yeah dude, Joe's right here," Hank said. "We're skiing, dude." What better thing to do in a snowstorm, after all? They were at Sugarbush, some 40 miles south of Burlington. Some young lady in their retinue apparently had a wealthy father who had an empty house "right on the slopes, dude."

So I pressed Hank to give me directions to the mountainside chalet. The trail leading to Joe was getting more treacherous: "OK, dude," Hank said, "you take a hairpin turn and then another hairpin turn, and then ..."

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Back at the Burlington airport the perky young man at the Enterprise rental counter had offered me a four-wheel-drive SUV. "There's a foot of snow out there," he'd chirped -- but at the time I thought I would simply be driving to the hotel, and Joe was going to be right there in Burlington. So I rented the "mini" or "micro" or whatever they call the cheapest car on the lot. It was a Nissan Crapola or something. Red. Almost toylike. It looked like something you'd rent in the Balkans. It had tires the size of doughnuts. As I walked up to it, keys in hand, I was half expecting circus midgets to pile out.

It was long past dark by the time I was on the roads snaking up to Sugarbush. They were twisting, dark and impossibly steep. Wind gusts from the black woods blew snow from roadside drifts across my windshield. The Crapola careened like an amusement park ride. I imagined swerving into an embankment and waking up in Stephen King's "Misery." I white-knuckled the wheel. I thought of my kids.

I could not find the chalet, which was nestled somewhere among the dark trees. My cellphone had long ago lost all connection to the civilized world. After one particularly hairy hairpin, the Crapola's wheels spun to a halt on a hill and I began sliding slowly backward on the ice.

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At that moment, exposing crimes in U.S.-occupied Iraq somehow didn't seem so important, public service be damned. I turned the toy car around, preparing to limp back down the mountain in low gear.

Just then a figure appeared out of the darkness by the side of the road. It was lanky roommate Hank, peering out from under a coat hood and looking like Shaggy from "Scooby-Doo." He was worried and on the lookout -- not for me, but for some girls he was expecting, who might be lost. The chalet turned out to be just ahead. Hank sent me inside with instructions to take off my wet shoes.

It was an oversize A-frame, with exposed wood beams, sweeping ceilings and a giant stone fireplace. Two scruffy-looking young men and a woman sat by dimmed lights at a coffee table in front of a gently burning fire. Beer bottles and half-empty wine glasses were scattered about. A small boombox pumped out bad reggae. I'd gone to Ithaca College as an undergraduate, so I knew this scene -- all that was missing was the patchouli and hacky sack.

I introduced myself to another scruffy character, whom I'll call Dave. Dave was crouched over an impressive mound of marijuana piled on the coffee table, busily rolling a large joint. The young woman, a thinner version of Mama Cass, was weaving in her chair to the reggae.

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And there was Joe: young, and looking more like he was fresh back from a Phish tour than a Fallujah one. He wore a funny hat that looked like it came from a Renaissance festival and a necklace from which hung a bone or tooth or some sort of fossilized material. And he had that record-store-clerk facial hair -- you know, the kind that's shaved in all kinds of funny places so that the sideburns jut down at sharp, odd angles, with a carefully crafted tuft jutting out again at the chin.

Of course, I knew by this point that interviewing a stoned, drunken hippie-looking dude about alleged war crimes in Iraq was not likely to be very fruitful. And glancing around the room I didn't see any computer, so I doubted we'd be looking at any video evidence. War can affect people in unlikely ways, but despite the references from other veterans, I was starting to doubt whether Joe was even a Marine.

But I'd come this far, and I've found that it's almost always worth sitting and talking with a potential source. And in my experience, it is best to talk with a veteran alone.

"Joe, can we go somewhere and talk?" I asked.

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"First, sit and chill," he said slowly, motioning toward a sofa.

I planted myself on the sofa, facing the fire.

Scruffy Dave looked up from his coffee table labors. "Where are you from?" he asked laconically.

"D.C."

He nodded. "So how does it feel to be in the mountains?" he asked.

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It felt awful to be in the mountains. In addition to the fact that I had not seen a Starbucks for hours, several times along the way I'd almost veered to an icy demise.

"Good," I answered.

And now Joe was apparently ready to talk. He lifted a small pipe, took a long drag, and began to pepper me with questions, each delivered in an increasingly confrontational tone.

"So, you write about veterans?" he growled.

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"Yes," I said. It seemed that Joe did not like this answer.

"Why?"

I said something about the importance of the work.

"Why do you do what you do?" he pressed, scowling.

I continued on about public service, and about how journalism can uncover the truth, et cetera. I did not mention that like a lot of reporters, I also do what I do because I don't know how to fix cars, or do anything else very well for that matter.

"Does any of it make any difference?" he huffed. I felt the conversation drifting toward the existential, which for an investigative reporter is like wandering out onto a vast tundra, thousands of miles from a parking garage harboring any secretive, vital source.

Maybe Joe was just some random stoner, and everything he knew about semper fidelis he'd learned in a high school Latin class. Or maybe Joe was a real Marine but didn't know a damn thing about any war crimes. Or maybe he did know about war crimes, but had decided late in the game that he wasn't going to talk about them. War is often destructive to the soul, even the toughest ones, and it wouldn't have been the first time I'd met a veteran drowning his post-traumatic stress disorder in a river of booze and drugs. Whatever the real story here, there was clearly a reason, aside from the fresh powder at Sugarbush, that Joe had chosen not to meet me in Burlington.

It was also becoming painfully clear that Joe did not want our chat to end on amicable terms, and that he was intent on making it seem like my fault. My profession was indeed going to be the foil in this swift, harsh counterinterrogation.

At some point in my hurried explanation of my job I'd mentioned to Joe that I'd worked hard to expose some of the brutal interrogation tactics employed by the CIA in the so-called war on terror. "You talk to the CIA?" he now asked with a hint of menace in his voice. He'd seized on something.

Many reporters talk to the CIA -- and the Energy Department and the Justice Department and so on. We call CIA spokespeople on the phone regularly. We ask them questions about CIA activity that's been in the news, or that maybe should be in the news more.

"Sure, I talk to the CIA," I said.

I could tell instantly that this was a pivotal moment in our brief relationship. By the look on Joe's face, clearly I'd just revealed a crucial fact, even if the import of this fact was lost on me.

"You need to leave," Joe said flatly.

"Leave?" I asked, genuinely surprised, but also hardly surprised at all.

"You need to leave," he repeated, staring, pipe held in midair. Then he angrily took a drag and gazed at me as if I were a spy -- like maybe I was a spy and didn't even know that I was a spy. But if the CIA had secretly implanted a microchip in my ass, Joe sure knew about it.

I realized by now, of course, that in this case all was lost. Alas, in some ways it was just an investigative reporter's stock in trade: For every Watergate -- or Walter Reed or Abu Ghraib -- there are a zillion leads that turn out to be duds. Admittedly, though, few crash and burn as spectacularly as this one had.

Still, I could not help pointing out how the situation seemed a tad unfair. "You know, Joe, I did come here all the way from D.C ..."

This prompted Joe to raise his voice. He shot back loudly, with a slight stammer: "You came here all the way from D.C.!"

While I've experienced my share of them, this was a truly curious moment. Joe didn't say anything else. In that frozen silence, it seemed that I was supposed to grasp the meaning of him shouting this pitiful fact back at me without any particular inflection to it. I still have no idea what he meant.

"Good luck, Joe," I said, and turned to find my shoes.


Mark Benjamin

Mark Benjamin is a national correspondent for Salon based in Washington, D.C. Read his other articles here.

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