Q&A with Zenger winner Dana Priest

Dana Priest does reporting for her Top Secret America project, including from a helicopter, and travels to Afghanistan. (Top, left photos by Michael Williamson/Washington Post)

Dana Priest, the 2016 winner of the UA School of Journalism’s Zenger Award for Press Freedom, is an investigative reporter for The Washington Post whose work focuses on intelligence and counterterrorism.

She earned a Pulitzer Prize in 2006 for uncovering secret CIA prisons and another in 2008 for reporting on poor medical conditions for veterans at Walter Reed Medical Center. A three-time Pulitzer finalist, she is the author of two best-selling books, “The Mission: Waging War and Keeping Peace with America’s Military” (2003) and “Top Secret America: The Rise of the National Security State.”​

Priest also teaches at Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism, where her students started a bracelet campaign, “Press Uncuffed,” to free imprisoned journalists across the world. She answered questions via email:

Q. What does receiving the Zenger Award mean? 

A. In the internet age of 24/7 information, it is stunning that information from independent news sources is disappearing in many parts of the world and in many   communities across the United States. The Zenger Award draws critical attention to this dangerous, counter-intuitive development. The recognition, and the truly inspirational journalists who have received it, gives me a comforting morale boost to continue to engage the next generation of journalists and to help free imprisoned reporters abroad. 

Q. How did you start the "Press Uncuffed" campaign, and have you seen results?

A. Until I became a teacher at the University of Maryland's journalism school, I had spent my 20-something year career at The Washington Post never really paying attention to what my colleagues overseas faced doing their jobs. I designed my first course to expose students to the risks faced by their foreign colleagues and to teach investigative techniques for reporting overseas without leaving the campus. Each student researched and profiled an imprisoned journalist. 

Not only did they learn how to find and interview relevant national security officials in Washington DC, but also how to find and interview colleagues and friends--and in some cases the jailed journalists themselves--in far off locations. The students were thrilled and surprised that they could do this work and most of them developed a personal connection to the imprisoned journalists whose lives they documented. They did not want their connection to this subject to end with the semester and Press Uncuffed was born.

Subsequent classes have felt the same, and subsequent students have taken up the leadership of Press Uncuffed each year. We have seen results. Four of the journalists who were featured on our bracelets are now free. Each of them, and their families, have told us how helpful it was to know we were thinking of them and working on their behalf while they were behind bars. Their stories have driven me and my students to work harder. We are now attempting to forge partnerships with other journalism students and academics across the nation who could join with us to make our voices stronger.

Q. How can students be good investigative journalists?

Learn to listen intently. Learn how to gain sources' trust by reporting, reporting, reporting, face-to-face with sources at all levels. Learn to connect the scraps of information that form the skeleton of investigative reporting. Be persistent, at all hours of the day and night. Practice. Practice. Practice.

Q. What's the best part of being an investigative reporter?

A. Making the world more just, if even for a day. Forcing government institutions to make change. Keeping the secret parts of the government accountable for what they do. Meeting people and understanding worlds I'd otherwise never have had the reason to discover. And finally, always having to work hard, to push myself, to take risks, to worry how in the heck will I be able to find the goods for the next story. 

Q. The VA and Walter Reed story really resonates in Arizona, because of the situation and past wait times for vets in Phoenix. How proud of you of that story and the CIA prison package?

A. The ripple effect of the Walter Reed story surprised me in the beginning and continues to surprise me to this day. Just last month, the director of Theater of War, an emotionally-wrenching and audience-engaging TK, told me he got the idea from reading our Walter Reed stories. Veterans I meet thank me, so do veterans' family members and even people who have friends in the military. It's an odd feeling, frankly, somewhat disconnected from the actual day-to-day work it took to report the series. That work was very much a typical investigative story: There one source that leads to another, and then another and another. Pretty soon a picture of distress, dysfunction and, in this case, complete injustice comes into view.  The reporting techniques were not sophisticated. They were basic. And when it got a little difficult, it was easy to keep going because the personal outrage factor was so huge.

The CIA prison package was different. Solitary work over a long period of time. There was a lot of hostility toward me and The Washington Post after it was published. But I'll never forget the day President Bush confirmed the prisons’ existence, announced he was closing them and that the prisoners held in them would be transferred to Guantanamo, one step closer to justice as defined by the US rule of law. I'll never forget sitting in a Virginia court room years later listening to the lawyer of a wrongfully imprisoned German citizen trying to get justice for having spent six months in a basement prison no one knew existed, or the release of the Senate intelligence report on torture years later.  I am forever grateful to have been among the handful of journalists who brought the CIA's secret world of prisons, interrogations and renditions into the daylight.