Last month, legislation was passed that will push the U.S. State Department to disclose how to police the sale of cyber tools and services abroad. The move followed a Reuters investigation, “Project Raven,” which revealed that American contractors assisted a foreign spying operation in the United Arab Emirates, helping the monarchy to crack down on internal dissent. In addition, another congressional reform passed following their reports requiring government to report risks of overseas activities of ex-spies. In a Reuters Best: Journalist Spotlight Q&A Chris Bing and Joel Schectman give a behind-the-scenes look at how they have been reporting the story.
Q: How did you get started on this series?
Chris: The story began with a tip from a source in the U.S. intelligence community’s contracting industry, who described how ex-National Security Agency analysts were returning home with disturbing stories about their contracting assignments in the United Arab Emirates.
Q: How did you build out your investigation on such a top secret topic?
C: Over the course of a year, we combed through a combination of social media profiles and contracting documents to find additional sources. We understood that any story about a secret espionage operation would require significant evidence. So, we pushed for as much detail as possible. Eventually, we found a former operative, named Lori Stroud, who agreed to speak on-the-record. This was a watershed moment for our investigation. Since then, Reuters has spoken with dozens of sources that have helped reveal a powerful UAE surveillance program, codenamed Project Raven.
Q: What was the impact of your investigation?
C: Because of our reporting, Congress included a new measure in the 2020 State Department spending bill that calls on the department to provide more information about how they police the spread of hacking skills abroad. The author of this provision, Congressman Dutch Ruppersberger, said that in light of Reuters’ reporting the U.S. must do a better job supervising the sale of cyber capabilities to foreign governments.
Q: What makes you passionate about journalism?
Joel: I love slowly uncovering the arcane, secret arrangements that the powerful use to maintain their status. There’s a narrative about how the world works, about how leaders are supposed to behave, but so often when you dig deep you learn the reality is worse than anything you could imagine. For me journalism is about the joy of that discovery.
Q: What is your beat and what do you find most fulfilling about it?
J: I write investigative stories about national security, cyber and corruption. I enjoy the careful chess game that comes with long-term investigative projects. There’s something so fascinating about piecing together the truth spread across hundreds of documents, conflicting interviews and small scraps of evidence. There’s a real beauty in making a dense, intentionally hidden story like that clear to every reader.
Q: What have been your most rewarding and most difficult experiences as a journalist?
J: Interviewing people who have suffered a recent, tragic loss is a part of the job I really still struggle with. But bringing urgency and life to those stories has also been one of the most rewarding parts of the job.
Q: Can you imagine being anything other than a journalist? If so, what?
J: If there were still uncharted places in the world to explore, I’d do that instead!