By: Joe Strupp
Although McClatchy’s Tom Lasseter and his colleague Matthew Schofield were able to interview some 66 former Guantanamo Bay detainees for their groundbreaking series on the U.S. prison there, getting them to cooperate was never easy.
“There was a lot to overcome,” Lasseter, now on vacation in Europe, told E&P late Thursday. “They were not people who wanted to talk, we got turned down by a lot of people, some would stop the interview and you would have to coax them back.”
Lasseter, the McClatchy Moscow bureau chief and a former Iraq War correspondent, co-authored the five-part series that ran last week and drew immense praise among both McClatchy papers and others that ran the package. It followed some eight months of research by the duo.
He said he personally interviewed about 53 of the former detainees: “They were really difficult to get a hold of and many didn?t want to talk, in places like Jordan and Afghanistan. They were really worried about retribution from security authorities or they were not sure if I was really a reporter.” He also said “there was a consistent thread in the interviews that the detention facilities in Afghanistan were worse than at Guantanamo Bay, in terms of physical mistreatment.”
He also discovered during the research that Afghanistan, in some ways, is as dangerous if not more than Iraq because many of the dangers are not as overt.
“There are not car bombs going off, but it is still a dangerous place,” said Lasseter, who made five trips to Afghanistan for the series, a place he had never before visited. “Just the act of landing in Kabul and going to a hotel seems safer than Iraq, but it is not.” He noted that the initial calm upon entering the country misleads visitors to think it is safer. “You still have to be cognizant about what you are doing.”
But among the biggest effects of the long research time was the impact it had on Lasseter’s fianc?e, Megan Stack, who is Moscow bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times. E&P last year highlighted the couple’s unusual coming together as competing correspondents in Iraq and Lebanon, and their eventual double-assignment in Russia.
Lasseter said it was difficult being away from Stack, to whom he got engaged last month, for some eight months. He also admits she knew broadly about the story as he reported it, but not in detail.
“She had a general idea, but we didn’t talk about it too much,” Lasseter recalled. “The biggest issue was just being gone all the time. We keep our personal lives separate from work. She knew I was in Jordan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Bahrain and I was gone a lot.”
Stack, who spent that time in language school and worked on a book about the war on terror, says she knew enough about the project not to be too worried but not enough to know its specifics: “I knew what he was doing and where he was going and, in general, who he was talking to. But we never got into details about what he was finding out. He wouldn?t show me the story until it was published. I never knew enough in detail to know how interesting it was.”
On a competitive front, Stack said finding out exactly what Lasseter’s story was about was not a major priority because “I am not covering the Middle East.”