Afghanistan Papers probe started with a single tip

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U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

The Washington Post’s years-long fight to obtain the Afghanistan Papers began with an “old-fashioned tip” about Michael Flynn.

The tip eventually led to transcripts of frank assessments about the Afghan war from hundreds of officials, bringing “into sharp relief the core failings of the war that persist to this day,” in the words of the Post.

“I think we’ve finally broken through with the truth about the war,” said Craig Whitlock, the investigative reporter who spearheaded the project for the Post.

And it started with Flynn.

As the retired Army general was touting his support for then-candidate Donald Trump ahead of the 2016 election, Whitlock heard from a source that Flynn had been interviewed by an obscure government agency, “railing about the war in Afghanistan.”

The agency is the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR). It had been collecting information from officals like Flynn for a project called “Lessons Learned.” The interviews ranged from White House or military officials “all the way down the ranks to aid workers or people in the field,” Whitlock said. But he didn’t know that at first.

Obtaining the transcript of the Flynn interview was a journalistic ordeal. The paper’s first Freedom of Information Act request was denied.

“Later we found out that this was part of a bigger project where they had interviewed hundreds of people. And even at that time, we didn’t know how many hundreds,” he said.

So the Post filed another, broader FOIA request. Months and months went by. The Post decided it had to go to court.

When the paper finally pried Flynn’s interview loose, and Whitlock saw Flynn’s “blistering” account asserting that the American public had been lied to about the nature of the war, he became even more determined to see the other interviews.

“We were just pulling on the string, and we kept pulling,” Whitlock said on this week’s “Reliable Sources” podcast.

The Post eventually won access to more than 400 of the interviews. Hundreds of memos from former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld also made up the database that the Post dubbed the Afghanistan Papers. The project immediately drew comparisons to the Vietnam-era Pentagon Papers.

While misgivings and mishaps have been extensively reported by the press throughout the nearly two-decade conflict in Afghanistan, Whitlock said the interviews are different because they reveal the views of “the people who were in charge of the war, the people running the show, so to speak.

They had these grave misgivings and doubts about the strategy, about the mission, about how things were being portrayed. And they were just enormously blunt about it in these interviews. And that, I think, gives them the power of the contrast between what the American people were being told in public and what these same people felt in private.”

On Monday the Post published a series of stories by Whitlock, a document database, a 17-minute documentary, a podcast episode about the reporting, and more.

Whitlock said the public’s response to the papers has been “gratifying.”

“People now have the opportunity to see and hear for themselves the richness, the texture, the human voices in these papers,” he said.

The Post is still seeking 200 additional interviews that Whitlock said “have been conducted since we first began seeking these records.”

“The more the better,” he said, “the better understanding we can have of what went wrong in Afghanistan and all the mistakes that were made.”