Spilling the nation’s secrets: Journalist Dana Priest speaks at Pitt

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Spilling the nation’s secrets: Journalist Dana Priest speaks at Pitt

Wenhao Wu | Staff Photographer

Wenhao Wu | Staff Photographer

Wenhao Wu | Staff Photographer

Wenhao Wu | Staff Photographer

By Emily Brindley / Staff Writer

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Dana Priest, a Washington, D.C., native of more than 25 years, started noticing the city’s skyline changing in drastic ways in 2004.

As replacements for buildings that were previously well-known establishments, other buildings began to crop up with confusing and vague names like “L-6.”

Four years later, Priest joined forces with William Arkin, a former U.N. adviser who spent years compiling data about the proliferation of top-secret government organizations beginning after 9/11. The result is a book called “Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State,” which came out in 2012 and exposed many of these “classified” government tactics to counteract terrorism.

“In our brains, it was like the human genome project,” Priest said Wednesday night. She added that the information resulted in “an alternative geography to the United States, a top-secret geography.”

Priest, a prominent Washington Post investigative reporter of almost 30 years, spoke in Alumni Hall’s Connolly Ballroom at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday about “The Curious Disappearance of Civic Info in the Age of the Internet.” Her talk focused on modern-day censorship of media in the United States and abroad and the challenges journalists face. The Honors College sponsored the event, and Carnegie Mellon University and the Dick Thornburgh Forum for Law and Public Policy, among others, also contributed to Priest’s visit.

Priest is no amateur when it comes to investigating government operations.

In 2014, Priest became the John S. and James L. Knight Chair in Public Affairs Journalism at the University of Maryland. She has also won two Pulitzer Prizes, most recently in 2008 for public service regarding her reporting on the conditions of an outpatient ward at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. A report she released on CIA secret prison sites sparked an international firestorm in 2005.

Edward Stricker, the dean of the Honors College, commended Priest’s work in investigative journalism. Stricker said there are two things necessary to achieve transparency and competency in the media.

“You simply have to be educated in order to understand the complex issues [of the modern world],” Stricker said. “And the second requirement is that you have to have a first-rate group of journalists who report on what’s happening.”

Priest discussed the effects of restricted media within and outside the United States. She emphasized the sheer number of journalists who have faced death, imprisonment or have been “roughed up” for refusing to follow the restrictive laws imposed on them.

“[The number of journalists] driven out of their profession is record breaking at this moment,” Priest said. “[Recently] an average of one journalist every week has been killed doing their job.”

The Committee to Protect Journalists reports that 46 journalists have been killed worldwide in 2015 in direct relation to their work. Since 1992, 1,150 journalists have been killed, according to the CPJ.

In countries that outrightly repress the media, Priest said, journalists don’t just face jail time for exposing the truth.

“It’s a macabre fact that the world is divided between those who jail journalists and those who kill journalists,” Priest said, in reference to the countries like Mexico, where suppression of journalists is more blatant.

Maria del Rosario Fuentes Rubio, a journalist who used Twitter as an outlet for her reports in Mexico, went missing after she tweeted about the location of shootings and the identity of missing persons.

Someone hacked Rubio’s Twitter account and posted an apology for her behavior, followed by a photo of her dead body. The Mexican police made no arrests, though many in the international community suspect the drug cartel was responsible.

Priest said government stonewalling of the media is not a foreign concept— it happens in the United States as well, particularly in areas involving national security.

Priest and Arkin combed the Internet for job listings, job descriptions and environmental reports for “Top Secret America.” During this investigation, they identified 33 new buildings in the Washington, D.C., area since 9/11 — all of which related to national security in some way, but whose exact functions the government left vague.

Lora Matway, a senior urban studies major who attended the speech, said she sees issues such as this lack of transparency playing out not only nationally, but on college campuses as well.

“I think that when you are involved with any sort of institution, you have to question the things that are happening behind closed doors,” Matway said.

Priest called for support of journalists who face persecution for reporting openly, and for both journalists and non-journalists to continue fighting for free press and open budgets at the governmental level.

“Stand up for that, because [an] open government is a better government,” Priest said.

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