Off the Cuff with Bob Drogin

On campus with his wife and daughter for a day of campus tours and an evening Convocation talks, Bob Drogin ’73 is the Washington deputy bureau chief of the L.A. Times. Throughout his career, Drogin has worked as a foreign correspondent and a national security correspondent, and won a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. Over coffee in Azariah’s, Drogin reminisced about his journalism experience at Oberlin and the importance of foreign correspondents.

Liv Combe, Editor-in-Chief

What was it like working [as managing editor] at the Review back in the 70s?

I only worked there the last year and a half while I was at Oberlin, and I fell into it sort of by accident. It changed my life. The editor at the time was a woman named Jenny Siebens [OC ’72]. Jenny went to Columbia Journalism School afterwards and she ended up ultimately working at CBS news and spent many years as a bureau chief in Los Angeles… Jenny and I were friends, she was a year or two years ahead of me.

What happened, and it really did change my life, was I wrote one story — it was about insurance or something, I don’t remember — but the second story I ever wrote for the Review said that the CIA was coming to campus to recruit at what was then called Afro House. I don’t know if there still is one. In the early ’70s, the CIA was going through all kinds of investigations in Washington — this was the Watergate period — and one of the many criticisms against the CIA at the time was that it was essentially and all-white organization. So they were trying to reach out, in fact, to recruit a broader array of Americans — in ethnicity, and gender, and racially, or whatever. So they were coming to Oberlin to recruit, and I wrote this in the Review, and my source was the Dean of… something, who was outraged by it. Vietnam was still on, and Oberlin was very activist at the time. And I wrote the story, and it changed my life because the Associated Press picked it up, so it went out on the wire, and theNew York Times ended up running a story about it — the CIA’s outreach program [and] running it out of Oberlin. I remember at the time thinking, “Well this isn’t very hard. I can do this!” And it sort of literally was the thing that got me going toward journalism.

In my senior year winter term I went up to — I don’t remember what prompted me to do this — but I went on my own up to Lorain, Ohio. I went to the newsroom there at the Lorain Journal and offered myself as an intern, which they had never had, and they hired me to cover police for the month of January. And then they hired me for the rest of my senior year to work weekend nights as the night cop reporter. And I loved it. I absolutely fell in love with it. If you’ve ever seen the movie The Front Page, which you should, it was very much old-style journalism at the Lorain Journal at that point.

The Editor-in-Chief was this little tyrant. Everybody called him “Leibo.” What I remember about him is that my desk was right outside his office, and he would smoke these big stinky cigars. Every so often [one] would roll off his desk — everybody had metal desks — and it would drop into the metal garbage can, and then he would lean over — and they called it a “squawk box,” it was a little walkie-talkie — and he would lean over to press the button, and say, “Gladys,” who was his secretary, “Gladys, would you bring the fire extinguisher in here?” Because by then the garbage can was on fire.

And the City editor — everyone called him “Screivo,” so Leibo and Screivo, I have no idea why. It sounds like a bad pun or something. Anyway, Screivo was this enormous guy, the other guy was this little imp, tyrant, just a popinjay, and this other guy was an enormous, hulking guy who also smoked cigars, like, as long as your arm. One of the first stories I had to write was a weather story — of course, it’s Oberlin, or Lorain, and there was flooding. I wrote a lead that must have been — and it was all still on typewriters with carbon paper and whatnot — I wrote a lead that was unbelievably dense and I think it quoted Yeats or something. I wish I’d saved it. And he said, he called me up, and he took the cigar out [of his mouth], and he held it up to me — this is true — he said, “Kid, this ain’t the fuckin’ New York Times. Try it again.” Words that I’ve lived by the rest of my life.

So I was going back and forth [from Oberlin], and I was the cops reporter, so I was covering murders, saw my first dead body, drownings, that kind of stuff. I had to call people whose kids had been killed. It was very much forcing me to move outside the comfort zone of Oberlin College or the Review, for that matter. It was sort of inaugurating me, or sort of breaking me into, for better or worse, what basic level journalism is — you have to talk to real people under stressful circumstances.

I remember how odd I felt, on a couple of these nights, where I’d be in Lorain — I think my hours were from three to midnight, I had the night shift — and I’d come back to Oberlin at one in the morning. I’d still be sort of… the presses, it was the old days, the whole building would shake. And the presses were clattering, and I’d get a copy of the paper, and there would be my story on the front page. And then I’d come back to Oberlin, and come into a party, and it was just a very different black and white sort of world. And frankly, if it had not have been my senior years, I’m not sure I would have survived one or the other, because it was really such a disconnect to be in… I don’t know what Lorain is like now, but at that time it was a thriving, very gritty steel town. There was a lot of violence, a lot of bars, a lot of rough stuff happening. I’m not sure which way I would have gone.

But anyway, I was at the Review, we had a good core of people. It was an exciting time at Oberlin. The president ran off with the dean of women — scandals at the top. Oberlin was [not just] very, very involved with the political ferment of the Vietnam period, but really on the radical side. The Chicago Seven — you know, things that have no currency today but were very much headline news. Oberlin was part of that at the time, trials that were going on and whatnot. We felt very connected.

Yesterday, I drove from Washington [D.C.] to Oberlin. It was a pretty scenic drive. And I realized — in my previous visits in the last few years, I flew up — I realized that the last time I had probably done that was in the back of a U-Haul truck because we would routinely rent U-Haul trucks and fill them with students — I’m sure it’s highly illegal — to drive to Washington for the March on Washington. I think I did it two or three times. And driving it this time, I thought, “My god, it’s really far.” But I was really thinking, “Literally the last time I did this was in the back of a truck.” And I can’t remember what we did for lights.

The Review was a real formative part [of college]. My Oberlin career was that I was here for a year and a half, and then I did a year overseas, and then I came back for a year and a half. And the final year and a half was really the most determinative for sort of who I became, if you will. The first year and a half, like most young people, were sort of about getting away from my parents and sort of figuring out the limits to what I could do, and what my interests were, and trying not to fail out.

I kept coming across the fact that you went backpacking through Asia. Was that through a program, or something you did on your own?

I did different versions of it. The year that I left Oberlin was the middle of my sophomore year, and I did a semester in Japan with something called “the Experiment in International Living,” which still exists. So I had a family stay, and then when that ended, I had been studying religion at Oberlin, and I got myself somehow into a Zen monastery in Kyoto for a month or two months. Then I bought a motorcycle and travelled around Japan. And then I spent the next, whatever it was, eight months, going pretty much overland. Took a boat to Taiwan, and then another boat to Hong Kong, or maybe I flew to Hong Kong. The war was still on, so Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, back up, Thailand, Burma, Nepal, India, Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, back into Europe. And then after Oberlin I spent to years in Indonesia working for UNICEF.

As a Shansi representative?

As a Shansi rep, yeah.

You ended up majoring in Asian Studies. Did you know you wanted to be involved in that part of the world at that point?

When I got to Oberlin they still had pass/fail in the grading system, which was probably a good thing for me. When I came back [from being abroad], I think we realized that I had never chosen a major, so we had to find one. So we had to look at the kinds of courses I had taken, which had not necessarily had a lot of direction to them, but there was a lot of religion, a lot of Asian history, and I was living in Asia House at that point. There was no Asian Studies major as an official major, but there was an Independent Major, so we sort of crafted something out of that. I had studied Japanese during a summer program at Stanford, and I got credit for that. And my time abroad was credit, or some of it.

Did you know at that point that you wanted to be a journalist?

I wasn’t really sure. When I graduated I applied to three different things. I applied to Columbia Graduate School in journalism, because my friend Jenny Siebens had gone there, and she must know what she was doing. I applied to Johns Hopkins to the School of Advanced International Studies, because I had thought maybe I should be a diplomat — I was pretty sure I wanted to live overseas, or do something overseas. And I applied with a friend of mine, who I’m still very, very close with, for a Shansi Fellowship, which until that time, had been… after they were thrown out of China, at that point they were in Taiwan and they were in south India. And my friend Peter and I — I’m fairly certain we were the first people to do this — we basically came up with this idea that… we went back and we read the mission statement for Shansi and it was actually quite an inspiring statement about service to Asia. And neither of us had any particular interest in teaching English, although it’s certainly a worthwhile thing, but both of us felt that if the terms of reference we service, we could both think of other things that we might be able to contribute. So we spent our Easter break or spring break in New York sort of knocking on doors of various large organizations and NGOs and saying, “if you give us a job, we can get the money, we can offer ourselves up because we can probably get a fellowship to pay for it.” And somebody who introduced us to the then-visiting head of UNICEF in Indonesia was very enthusiastic about this, who decided to take a gamble on two, you know, 21-year-old smartass Oberlin grads who didn’t know anything, but were willing to learn, and had a lot of enthusiasm.

And so Shansi appointed us — and I’m fairly sure we were the very first — “experimental reps.” We went to Indonesia, we lived in Jakarta, and we were Shansi fellows. In the end it worked out very nicely, because UNICEF paid us as well. They didn’t have a system for free labor. We didn’t get rich on this, trust me. Shansi didn’t pay that much and neither did UNICEF. I stayed two years, Peter stayed several years more, and did his Ph.D. there, and made his career, and he’s teaching at Harvard now. His daughter is a sophomore here at Oberlin, and my daughter stayed with her last night.

When I graduated I got into Columbia, I got into SAIS, and I got the fellowship. And I asked for delays for the other two so that I could make my decision. I pretty much decided after two years of the UNICEF experience that that was not the life for me. When I compared my limited working experience at that point, which was the Lorain Journal and the UN, that I actually preferred theLorain Journal model. Maybe this is selfish, but whatever. [I preferred] the instant gratification that came from journalism, whether it’s in the small scale or the large scale, the sense of being a part of a community, affecting a community, representing a community. In UNICEF, as valid and as fabulously important it is, most of the work we were doing was generational: we’ll start a program now and hope that in ten years from now that generation will have it.

That being said, I loved it. I loved being in Indonesia. We did a lot. I was in the nutrition division, I travelled a lot, I nationalized the entire salt industry of Indonesia so that we could iodize it, to stop goiter. We had enormous impact for a couple of 21-year-old kids. When I came back I decided that the foreign service would be that way, and I wasn’t very good at taking orders, I learned that at the UN. I liked doing things my own way, so journalism seemed the way to go.

So I went to Columbia, got my Masters. Loved it. Freelanced for a year as a photographer. I worked for an agency in New York called Magnum Photos, which was quite wonderful. I wound up covering a presidential election, prizefights, all kinds of things as a photographer that was just really fun, for magazines and things. And then decided that photographer wasn’t the way to go, I really did like writing, so I got a job in Charlotte at the Charlotte Observer. Did that for two and a half years. Then went back to UNICEF to Cambodia for [the Khmer emergency], the killing fields, and I was the Deputy Director of Relief on the Cambodian border, I did that for six months, travelled for the rest of the year. Went to the Philadelphia Inquirer, [and] by then a big series that we had done in Charlotte had won a bunch of prizes and we won the Pulitzer [Prize for Public Service], so that was fun. I was in Philly for two years, then went to the L.A. Times in New York, spent six years in New York, and then eight years overseas, and now I’m in Washington. There’s my life in a nutshell. Thank you for asking.

What do you think investigative journalism is, and what sort of person does it take to do that type of work?

I don’t think it’s any more elite than any other type of journalism. I’m a manager now, 30 people work for me, so I look at [journalism] as an orchestra: some people play the piccolo and some people play the tuba, and you need both of them to have the orchestra. And investigative reporters are sort of in that realm. I was on the board of something called Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) and I’m still active there.

I think what probably characterizes investigative journalists more than anything else is that they’re crazy. They become obsessive. And I did it, for a number of years. They are often people who will disappear for weeks or months at a time (depending on where they’re working) data-crunching, or getting access to some missing record. It’s hugely important. Investigative reporting tends to be uncovering material that for the most part government doesn’t want exposed. Or, in some cases, the government doesn’t know exists, and sometimes it’s more about figuring out what traffic records really show, or whatever. Really good investigative reporting is bringing transparency to government operations or government secrecy, it’s pulling the curtain back on malfeasance or fraud and abuse. But we don’t have subpoenas, we don’t have prosecutorial power; we’re just reporters out there getting people to talk.

I’ve done a lot of investigative reporting, but I’ve never been a good record-searcher; I’m just sort of not that into it. But I’m pretty good at getting people to talk to me, and I’m pretty persistent. I don’t like when people say no to me. I covered intelligence for 10 years, and that by definition is people saying no, and I managed to break a lot of stories. I don’t know that it was investigative in the sense of meeting in dark basements or whatever, but we met in coffee shops. We didn’t have to do it in garages, and I got a lot of people to talk to me who weren’t supposed to talk to me.

I think the term sort of calls up the Woodward/Bernstein model, but if you really think of what they did — if you ever saw the movie — 90 percent of what they did was knock[ing] on peoples’ doors. They were just persistent, and that’s just a sign of good reporting. And they followed clues, and they didn’t listen to official government responses. They were skeptical. And when [investigative reporting] works well, it’s a watchdog, it’s not a lapdog, and it’s not an attack dog. It brings clarity, it brings a light, it brings the cleansing of sunshine, as Thomas Jefferson said, to dark places. And in a democracy, I think that’s an absolutely vital function of the press.

Is there an element of glamour to being a foreign correspondent?

When I was a foreign correspondent, I visited something like 60 countries. I covered wars and civil wars and revolutions and volcanoes. Good news and bad news. It was one of the happiest times of my life professionally, in the sense that there were any number of days when I would wake up and look around me and think, “I can’t believe they’re paying me for this,” because I was having such a good time, and I was so excited to jump in and do the next story. And there were definitely times along the line when I though, “Jesus, they are not paying me enough to do this,” because it was some real shithole, and some horrific conditions.

As a rule, Americans are… we are an insular country — that’s what happens when you have oceans on two sides — and foreign news is always an uphill climb for news organizations because it is expensive and does not trend well in polling. But I think one of the most important things a reporter can do as an eyewitness is to bear witness when there is genocide or a famine or a coup or the Arab Spring or something that affects the world around us. Having someone out there with a critical pair of eyes who can explain what he or she is seeing and bring that alive to people back home is, I think, enormously valuable. And, in most cases, it is enormously fun. But it’s not for everybody.

I was based in South Africa from 1994 to 1998, so I was there for the end of apartheid and the election of Nelson Mandela, one of the most thrilling, exhilarating events of recent years. But most of what I can tell you about it is it was exhausting. It was just a firehouse every day of things and just insatiable interest back home. So the election of Mandela was in 1994, and the same month was the start of the genocide in Rwanda. And we went literally from the wonderful news about the end of apartheid, and the election of this almost saintly figure, to mass murder on a scale that we’ve never seen before, a million people killed in 100 days, and done not in gas chambers but by their neighbors with machetes and hoes and axes. One of the more horrific scenes of mass murder you can imagine. So it’s not for everybody.

How do you make it so that the horrible memories aren’t necessarily the ones that take over?

I can tell you that Rwanda was unique on lots of levels and I know some journalists who never recovered, who went through PTSD and quit the business. I hope that to do that you don’t have to remove your personality [to cover horrible, violent events], but the point is that… someone has to do it. It should be done. And I’m glad I did it. Because I was able to bear witness, and that is what our jobs are. When I said it was the happiest time of my life, I wasn’t referring to that particular period. I don’t think I’ve ever been able to go back and read what I wrote because that particular time was such a horrible experience, but I have no regrets about doing it.

The problem we’re in now is that the traditional news organizations are in such economic straits, and the traditional news model is collapsing so quickly that the whole world of foreign correspondence is evaporating very quickly. So there are fewer people… I would be surprised if there were five American correspondents in the entire African continent right now. And I don’t know what the numbers are, but they’re miniscule. My point is that Africa doesn’t exist anymore, Latin America doesn’t exist anymore for most Americans and news organizations because they can’t afford to keep people there. The networks keep three foreign bureaus, by and large. The Washington Post has closed all of its national bureaus. We have half as many foreign bureaus as we did five years ago at my newspaper. Papers that kept foreign bureaus — Boston, Miami, San Francisco, whatever — they’re gone. All those foreign reporters are no longer employed.

It’s not about a trend, I think [foreign correspondence] is just going. There was a news model that existed and for a variety of reasons… the economic model that has sustained journalism since the Gutenberg Bible changed about five years ago, and we don’t know what that future looks like because nobody has figured out how to monetize the Internet. It’s wonderful to be able to open up the Internet and get everything for free; it’s not so wonderful if you’re the person who has to provide it. What I do, what I’ve spent my career doing, I can’t do it if somebody doesn’t pay me. And if people don’t want to pay for news on the Internet… somehow we’re all used to paying 99 cents for a song on Apple. I mean, shit, I pay 130 bucks a month for cable TV which is no better than the TV I used to get, I buy bottled water when I can get the same stuff for free out of my kitchen sink and it tastes the same, but somehow people think that news should be free on the Internet. And to a certain extent, and what I think is a worrying trend, there is a conflation between news as is gathered by independent reporters and opinion, or analysts, who are sitting somewhere else and telling you what to think about it. A Fox News, or CNBC commentator, or someone on the Internet.

The New York Times called your 2007 book Curveball “a story of willful blindness masquerading as secret intelligence.” As a national security correspondent, did you come across this sort of thing often?

It was once in my career. You could argue that the CIA failed; [they] spent 40 years targeting the Soviet Union, and failed to foresee the collapse of the Soviet Union, the fall of the Berlin Wall. The foreign intelligence budget last year was $81 billion, much of it targeting the Middle East because of the whole question of jihadism and terrorism. And they failed to anticipate the Arab Spring, [the] bringing down [of] a series of governments allied to the United States. You could argue those are, by definition, colossal, stunning, staggering failures of intelligence, and that is what the system is designed [to do], supposed to do. War and policy makers, [are supposed to see] what’s coming, [to know] how to anticipate it. And [they] failed on those critical issues. The problem in Washington is that the best way to get money is to fail. That’s what happened after 9/11. They failed to stop it, so what did they do, they give you $55 billion more.

Curveball is a unique case for a number of reasons. It’s certainly not the first time that [U.S. intelligence] fell for an imposter, or that information was misused, or even the first time that intelligence was misused or misportrayed to take the country to war, it’s unique because of the scale of what happened here. I don’t know that America would have gone to war without Curveball; it’s impossible to know what would have happened. But without him, they would have had no case to make about Saddam’s supposed biological weapons. And we now know [what] we didn’t know at the time: that without the claims of biological weapons, they wouldn’t have had the confidence to make the claims about chemical weapons, and without biological and chemical weapons they really had squat. The nuclear program was always much more nuanced.

So it was an astonishing fuckup, but at a systemic level, which is to say the system was set up to protect secrets, and in this case what it did was [protect] the fact that there was an imposter built into the system, and that the people at the very earliest stage who should have done the vetting didn’t do that because they assumed somebody else was doing it. And they thought that well, if they’ve approved it, it must be okay. It proceeded to go up the system and the further and further it went, the more validity it was given, so that by the time that Colin Powell goes to the United Nations and says, “We have an eyewitness, and he has seen X, Y, and Z,” Colin Powell did not know that, in fact the U.S. Intelligence had never met this guy, didn’t even know his name and had never talked to him.

The truly ironic part is that this guy, he wasn’t trying to bring down Saddam; he was just a schlub, a low-level thief. He was a taxi driver, he was trying to get a Visa to Germany, he was trying to get out of the refugee line, he was trying to get a Mercedes-Benz. He’s living in a homeless shelter now. That’s what I was told two months ago, anyway. He’s a sociopath, he’s a guy who cannot look at you and tell the truth about things. And [he] changed his stories constantly, and for a convoluted history, the Germans refused to make him available. (But we would never have made our guy available to the Germans were it the other way around, it’s just the way that business works.) So he became a lynchpin for the case against Saddam.

How do you start writing a book about someone like Curveball when you’ve never met him?

That’s a good question. I’d never written a book before. In this case, I did 80-100 interviews in the United States, Iraq, Jordan, Germany, France, England, [and] at the UN. By the time I wrote my book, there was quite a lot of documentation through investigations [that] had come out, and I was able to obtain quite a but more documentation about the case. In his case, I talked to quite a few people who had interviewed him, the Germans.

But how do you write about it? I can tell you that since I’d never written a book, one of the things my publisher asked me to do was to write an outline. And so I started to and I spent two or three months writing a 20-chapter outline, and I never looked at it again. I wound up with a book that is, in fact, three parts and has 35 chapters. After it was over, I realized when I did pull out that outline again that it was essentially a 20-chapter newspaper story. It was a story that said this happened, and this happened, then this happened. And [it] sort of drew out the narrative that way. And what I wrote instead, or tried to write, was more of a… a newspaper story almost always is looking back, and telling you what happened with the clarity of hindsight, because you want it to be clear, and you want the most important stuff to be high up, and all of that. But you want to explain to people what went wrong. And what I was more interested in, because there had been these investigations, we knew by that point what had went wrong. I was trying to understand what people were thinking at the time. How did this go wrong? So I tried very much to write the book as it developed, if you will. So in three parts, in three different places, over a period of years — [explaining] why people made the decision they did, when they did them, with the knowledge they had. Otherwise [the book] didn’t mean anything, otherwise it was just sort of telling people what they already knew, which is the story that I broke originally — that this was all based on a guy with the wonderful name of Curveball and he was a fraud and the CIA had never talked to him.

So I was trying much more to write it as a mystery, or a thriller, a spy story. The motif is every Hollywood western: a stranger comes to town and all hell breaks loose. And that’s what this guy was, this guy shows up in the system and he should have been a nothing, a nobody. He gave his information before 9/11, and after 9/11 somebody pulled it out of a safe and said, “Hey, let’s see what this is about,” and it took on a life of its own. And that wasn’t his intention, it wasn’t his goal.

Did you try to meet him?

I made three trips to Germany, [but] he was in a witness protection program. So what happened was the book came out in 2007 and it embarrassed the German media, which had never really covered it. There’s a magazine there named Der Spiegel, which is the largest magazine in Germany. There’s nothing quite like it in this country. Der Spiegel assigned six reporters, including a friend of mine, to try to find him. It took them six, seven months, they finally found him. He lied to them. I was part of the final group that went in, he lied to us. Said he hadn’t talked about weapons of mass destruction, he didn’t know anything, blah, blah, blah. CNN then did an interview with him, maybe a year later,;he lied to them. Danish television then tracked him down — everybody was sort of following the same path — they tracked him down, he lied to them.

And then it was while I was in Egypt, in fact, he talked first to the Guardian, then to 60 Minutes. I think he was trying to write a book, is the point of this. And for the first time he admitted that he had said all of these things, which we already knew; the record was very clear. He claimed for the first time that he had done all of this to bring down Saddam, but that was a lie because the timing of it. [It went against] everything we knew about what had happened at the time, and why he left; there was an arrest warrant because he was stealing stuff from the state TV station, there were lots of things. He was portraying himself belatedly as a hero, but it certainly didn’t convince me, and I don’t think anybody else. He was trying to sell a book, I don’t know if he succeeded with that, I think he was trying to sell his story. I don’t know if the Guardian paid. I know when 60 Minutes got him, he walked off their stage when they tried to ask him too much. He stopped for a cigarette break, and then decided not to go back for the rest of the interview.

Do you have plans to write more books?

I’d like to do another book, I have one that I’d like to write about. I’m not in a position to in the short term or immediate term because I’m an editor now, since April/May of this year. The last big story I wrote was the killing of bin Laden, so that was May 2. And since then I’ve been an editor, and it’s a much more confining kind of thing. I have to show up in an office every day, I have to wear shoes, I have to be on a conference call and another one at one, bladdy bladdy blah. It’s much more limiting, and the book that I want to write would require foreign travel and probably a year or two of reporting. I just don’t have that time.

Would you like to work abroad again?

Possibly. I’m 59, I’m not getting any younger. I’ve got one son at [New York University]; he’s a sophomore, and my daughter is applying to Oberlin, among other schools. So I think as long as my kids are in college, I was to stay here, and by then I’ll be in my mid-60s, and I don’t know if anyone will want to send me abroad at that point. My wife is from the Philippines; she’d certainly like to go, to leave. We’ll see.