Aram Roston is a veteran investigative reporter who earned his chops poking around fishy paperwork in Liberia, embedding with US soldiers in Afghanistan, and protecting his sources wherever he goes. In this interview, conducted by Nation Institute Web Editor Jayati Vora, he shares his experiences about embedding — and when it’s better to remain unembedded — and his advice to reporters doing a story from a conflict zone for the first time. —Jayati Vora

Click here to play the Backstory interview with Aram Roston

JAYATI VORA: So Aram, what was it like to be an unembedded reporter in a war zone?

ARAM ROSTON: Well, I always try avoiding actually doing anything in the actual conflict areas at all, or in combat areas, especially if you’re not around soldiers on one side, because you’re just leaving yourself vulnerable. So in Kabul, where I was, it’s not like a war zone — there are periodic attacks, terrorist-type attacks in Kabul — but generally speaking it’s a relatively safe area. One has to avoid being seen, and vary one’s routine, and be aware of security threats, and you know you can’t show yourself as a westerner on the streets, typically, but it’s not like being in a combat zone where you actually have firing and you have actual combat at all.

To be an unembedded war reporter in a war zone, I haven’t done that since 2001, frankly, and I don’t think it’s worth doing. I’ve done it in Baghdad, too, where I was unembedded in Baghdad, and again there was conflict there, but there wasn’t actually — its apples and oranges — if you’re anywhere near a firefight — I wouldn’t want to be there unembedded at all. But depending on what you’re covering, if you’re covering the war, you kind of have to be embedded. People did try to cover the invasion of Iraq, for example, unembedded. But it was really difficult, if not impossible. They all had to try to link up eventually with forces of some sort. You can do it, but you have to sort of link with one side or other, because you can’t just be a wandering civilian in a war zone when there’s firefights going on.

VORA: So then tell me about your experiences being embedded.

ROSTON: The most recent time, I was embedded in Wardak and Logar, and I was doing a couple of stories, it was with the 10th Mountain Division, and basically, there, I’ve got to confess, I didn’t see any combat, I went on a patrol or two and I didn’t see any firefights. It was fascinating; I think every journalist who goes there is always astounded by the troops. I must say, whatever their feelings are about the war, it’s pretty impressive — usually that is, not inevitably — that you sort of see things that you don’t see elsewhere, because you are exposed to the reality of war’s impact on these typically very young people — they’re directly inside it — their whole lives are surrounded by this, and they lose their friends, they see tragedy and conflict all the time — and particularly when no one else sees it like that. In a way, getting embedded is a unique opportunity to see them. That said, there are, obviously, their own issues, as well.

VORA: Have you ever found yourself in a dangerous situation as part of your reporting? And can you tell us about it?

ROSTON: Well, yes, I’ve found myself in dangerous situations, but no one’s ever kidnapped me. I try to be really careful when I go somewhere, I try to go very low and slow, as they say, and I try not to ever stay somewhere that could get hostile for too long. I just go, have my meetings, and I try to get out as soon as possible. Obviously in Iraq and in Afghanistan there’s more rocket attacks, periodically, and there’s car bombs periodically, but I’ve never been close enough to one that it actually endangered me.

VORA: What kind of protection would you take for your sources?

ROSTON: A long time ago I had an experience where I did a story, and a guy I put in my story was later killed, was later tortured and killed. I don’t think it was directly a result of my story, but it taught me a lesson because some people said ‘hey, maybe it was a result of your story,’ other people said ‘no, don’t worry about it, it wasn’t,’ and I know he was in danger anyway. I mean, I was writing about him because his life was under threat. But it really did drive home how important it is to realize that people’s names mean something. There are different issues to look at when one’s reporting overseas than here. Here, the subject of your story, or your sources, or people you’re associating with, they can get fired, they can get sued, they can lose their jobs — bad things can happen to them — but typically they’re not going to get tortured and killed. In war zones, or in conflict areas, or hostile environments, if you’re doing reporting there, those people can get killed and/or tortured and/or kidnapped.

VORA: As an investigative reporter, is there a way to protect your sources?

ROSTON: Unfortunately, there really isn’t. You know, one can do one’s best. Typically, everybody uses mobile phones, that way everybody’s got to presume every phone you use is tapped. I mean, every mobile phone, it’s so easy, it’s so easy to tap them these days. For a government or any sort of… whether you’re in Iraq, or Afghanistan, you’ve got so many competing interests — in Iraq, whether it’s the government, you’ve got the Interior Ministry, the police, and then you’ve got the various militia-type groups — and it’s the same in Afghanistan, you’ve got various competing government factions, there’s all sorts of factions. Everybody’s listening in on everything, if they want to. Plus the Americans are, of course, foreign agencies are — almost all those lines of communication are tapped. As a Westerner, if you’re meeting somebody, you’ve got to realize, that if somebody is following you, which they might be — you’re doing stories that are sensitive — it’s so easy to follow you, so they’re going to know who you’re meeting with. But you still have to at least maintain deniability, you’ve got to make sure your notes are encoded, your videotapes or audiotapes are protected. You simply can’t make it easy for anybody to find out whom you’ve been talking to.

VORA: Any other challenges that you’ve faced as an investigative reporter in either Afghanistan or Iraq?

ROSTON: To me, the main concern is the one I mentioned, that you want to protect your sources, but the other concern is just maintaining — just because you’re in a hostile environment, doesn’t mean standards of proof are lowered at all. One still needs to maintain high standards of objectivity, of proof, of documentary evidence, of where it’s obtainable, where it exists, paperwork. And to me, I’ve found, if you’re doing investigative reporting, you’re often chasing the money. And usually people somehow — there’s usually paperwork involved somewhere. Now, that doesn’t mean it’s all in the open, but it means it’s possible, that’s what I always try to do, even in a hostile environment. It’s work, I’ve done this sort of work in Iraq, and I’ve done it in Afghanistan, and I’ve done it elsewhere, in Liberia. And even in Liberia, I got a gold mining contract that Pat Robertson, the TV evangelist, had signed, and Charles Taylor the President had signed — even there, things are signed. A lot of the time, not always. But all I’m trying to say is, you can’t drop your standards just because you’re in a really hostile environment and it seems like it’s tougher to find evidence of things. Obviously the other big issue for investigative reporters in these regions is atrocities, human rights violations — and there too, you have these high standards, and you can’t ever drop them. That’s what makes it so tough.

VORA: Do you have any advice to give young reporters who are going to Iraq or Afghanistan for the first time?

ROSTON: I think embedding is great, I think people who embed do great stories. I mean, it’s tougher to do investigative journalism on what’s happening in circles of power — if you want to know who contracts are going to, those sorts of things, you’re probably not going to be able to do much of that if you’re embedded. But if you’re covering the war, that’s the way to do it. On the other hand if you’re covering the other parts of the war, if you’re really interested in civilian casualties and collateral damage issues and these sorts of things, you can’t do it that way. But there are so many other stories. No one’s embedded in Kabul; it’s pretty easy to operate. Not easy, I’m sorry, I speak wrongly, because plenty of people have been kidnapped and had major, major security threats and some have died there. So I don’t mean to underplay it, it’s just that you wont get anything done if you’re embedded in Kabul.

VORA: Do you think it’s safer to be embedded?

ROSTON: It varies, I mean if you’re in the thick of it, people who are embedded are not necessarily safer because they’re often on patrol, and they’re traveling with convoys, with the military. The military is technically safer because you’re in an armored vehicle, but they’re just as likely to get hit if not more. There are so many journalists that have been maimed, injured in so many ways. It’s not even a choice of being embedded or not embedded. If you’re covering combat, people these days have to be embedded, I think. I don’t think there’s that many other ways to do it. Unless you’re going to be traveling with other forces, embedded with maybe the Afghan forces if you wanted to do that, which is, again, highly risky. But you can do it, if you can convince them to take you. Yes, there are huge risks with being embedded, tremendous risks to being embedded, because you’re on patrol, and you don’t have, let alone the training, but you don’t have the firearms, you’re not necessarily as attuned to what’s going on. On the other hand, you’re safer from kidnappings; you’re almost certainly not going to get kidnapped if you’re embedded. And kidnapping, for a while, was the big threat in Afghanistan.

VORA: Talk about your book, The Man Who Pushed America to War. How did you find your sources, how did you cultivate your sources so that they trusted you?

ROSTON: I worked like crazy on that book, but it was a labor of love. Everybody wanted to come forward and talk about Chalabi, which was the only reason that made it work easier for me. All sorts of people came out of the woodwork, whether I was in Lebanon, in England, whether I was in Jordan, all of these people were coming out to just talk about him. Because he affected so many lives — in some cases, he did so much damage. In Iraq too, everybody sort of knew him, knew something about him. But his main impact obviously, the reason I thought it was such an important thing to write about, is that I wasn’t trying to blame him for the war, I just thought as a phenomenon, it’s such an important thing to look at, that a guy can have this kind of influence on America. It just shows what a man with charisma can do. This guy had no official job, anywhere. He wasn’t a member of our government, he had no title, he wasn’t a diplomat. He was a failed banker whose whole bank had collapsed because of fraud, and then somehow, he was able to get to the halls of power in Washington, DC, and really affect people.

And it wasn’t just the neoconservative right-wing, but there were also a lot of left-wing, or progressive types, who really believed in him, and accepted his whole premise, and they absorbed him. They loved him, it was almost — I always like writing about con artists and fraudsters and hucksters, I find them interesting. Here, it was someone who took all those skills of a con man and he applied them to national security and US policy, and he was able to achieve it. If you distance yourself from the damage he did to America and to Iraq, it’s an amazing accomplishment. He got a lot done in this world. Not saying he did anything good for the world, but the impact he had is amazing. And the pure adventures, if you look at the book, the bizarre adventures with these, these characters — so that’s why I thought it was interesting to write.

VORA: Would you say there are any parallels between your reporting in Iraq and Afghanistan?

ROSTON: That’s a really interesting question. Yes, I think there are huge parallels. If you read one story I did for The Nation, I think it was called ‘Afghan Lobbying Scam’, it was about a guy named Hamed Wardak. He set up a lobbying group, and its mission was to encourage the US, and to encourage Obama, to invest more in Afghanistan’s government, to sort of build up the military there, build up the U.S. military presence there, and so forth. But to achieve his goals he went right through Washington, through lobbyists. Which is exactly what so many intelligent people do if they want to affect things positively, they go right to Washington, and sometimes it really works. You can watch them try to manipulate the US foreign policy establishment, and you can see what happens when they did that in Iraq, obviously, in Afghanistan it’s less clear what the influences are, who’s influencing things. And in Afghanistan you have so many more competing influences. In Iraq, like with Chalabi, it was the sheer force of his influence, his personality that created these various factions in Washington. Some people loved him, some people hated him, whatever the case — some were for invasion, some were opposed to it — often because of how they aligned themselves with him. In Afghanistan it became so much more complex because you’ve got all these completing influences, you don’t have one single charismatic character. But what you do have is a lot of people trying to get rich.

VORA: I noticed you did a story on Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of New York. What got you interested in that topic?

ROSTON: I think it’s very important to track money, to look at money. Where people’s money is, and how they spend it, and how they earn it, and how they make it, and where they keep it. And I’m not sure people have done a lot of that with Michael Bloomberg. I’ve talked to journalists, they understand that he’s rich — and that’s it, that’s the end of it. I think it’s really important to go a little further than that, so I really wanted to try that: where does he really keep his money? Do we understand everything about his money? He’s the mayor, and therefore, it needs a special scrutiny. He’s not only the mayor; he runs a huge media empire. What do we really look at? And that’s not to imply anything that’s negative, but I think it’s incumbent upon journalists to look at him — that’s what I was trying to do.

VORA: How did you first get on to the story? Did you get a tip from someone?

ROSTON: No, I’ve been fascinated by him and I began to try to — the only way I could really get into his, the briefest look I could, was his financial disclosure forms, and where his charity was. And I said wow, the charity seems to open up a lot of windows. And when you looked at it, you saw this fascinating issue about the money going overseas, as I mentioned, in these sort of interesting ways.

VORA: Thank you Aram.

ROSTON: Thank you so much.