The Story Behind the Lynndie England Interview
He interviewed Lynndie England, the woman that tabloids have dubbed "Leash Gal." England is the American soldier who has become an iconic symbol of American abuse of Iraqis being held at the Abu Ghraib prison. In one, she is seen smiling with a cigarette in her mouth as she leans forward and points at the genitals of a naked, hooded Iraqi. Another photo shows her holding a leash that encircles the neck of a naked detainee lying on his side.
Within a day of Maass' interview, U.S. senators who were shown more photos of prisoner abuse and alleged guard misconduct said that England is featured in even more photographs that have not been released.
Maass is, today, still the only journalist to have interviewed England.
I interviewed Maass for Poynter Online to learn more about how his interview came together and what else Maass learned that he has not yet reported.
Poynter Online: How did it happen that a Denver news crew landed the one interview everyone wanted — Army Pfc. Lynndie England, who was in Ft. Bragg, North Carolina?
Maass: I had an ongoing professional relationship with one of Pfc. England's Denver-based attorneys, Rose Mary Zapor, which was key to us landing the interview. I had done a story several months earlier about one of her clients. (Ironically, he was a jail inmate and there was some videotape of him purportedly being abused in a jail cell.) We had many conversations leading up to that particular story. Ultimately, Zapor felt that we had been professional, accurate, and fair to her client in the story we aired. In short, she said she felt she could trust me.
On Friday, May 7th, she called me and told me that she and a group of Denver lawyers might be hired as England's lawyers. I immediately told her that if that happened, I'd like to interview Pfc. England. Almost immediately, she said she thought that would be a good idea, and we would talk more if the Denver lawyers were retained.
The following day, Saturday, May 8th, I spoke to her and she said they were indeed taking the case. That in itself was a story, and I arranged an on-camera interview with her and the lead attorney on the case for 8 a.m. Sunday, Mother's Day. We also continued talking about an on-camera interview with Pfc. England. I did a conference call with her and the lead attorney. They indicated immediately that they wanted England to do an interview, and committed to letting me do an interview, if it actually happened.Maass: "I figured it was more likely than not that our interview would fall apart like a garage sale suitcase."
The following morning, I sat down with the two lawyers and did an on-camera interview about their representing England. We aired pieces at 5 p.m. and 10 p.m. Sunday. After the cameras were off, we talked extensively about interviewing England, about the logistics and legal issues, hammering out details. And we came to a basic agreement.
I would travel to Ft. Bragg to interview Pfc. England. I would have an 'exclusive' for 24 hours before she did any other interviews.
I still knew this was only theory, that there would be enormous pressure from the networks and their heavy hitters to get England, and I figured it was more likely than not that our interview would fall apart like a garage sale suitcase. But it was worth taking the risk of flying down to North Carolina and giving it our best shot.
What conditions did you have to agree to in order to get the interview?
Not many. The lawyer wanted to be present for the interview, which he was. On several questions, he advised her not to answer, saying it would jeopardize her defense. In our initial reports, in the interest of full disclosure, we made sure we reported that the lawyer was present, and that he prevented her from answering several questions. He initially suggested he thought 35 minutes for the interview would suffice. We went for closer to an hour.
There were no other conditions.
In the interview she said, "Well, I mean, they [the photos] were for psy-op reasons." She said, "And the reasons worked. I mean, so to us, we were doing our job, which meant we were doing what we were told, and the outcome was what they wanted. They'd come back and they'd look at the pictures, and they'd state, 'Oh, that's a good tactic, keep it up. That's working. This is working. Keep doing it. It's getting what we need.'" You didn't appear to press her hard/hold her accountable on that question. Why not?
Actually, I did press her hard on this, but it deserves some background and explanation. I spent about four hours with her before the hour-long taping. During that time, I asked repeatedly for names of who was giving orders, who were 'they' who were condoning the photos and the behavior. In many instances, she said it was members of Military Intelligence, O.G.A. (other government agencies such as the CIA, FBI). She said she knew those people by face, but didn't know their names.
In terms of who in her actual military chain of command was involved and approved of this behavior, I also asked this repeatedly in our pre-interview. She clearly did not want to name names of those people and kept repeating it was just the chain of command.
Keeping in mind we were told we would only have 35 minutes on camera, I didn't want to spend a lot of time on questions that were not going to yield meaningful answers, based on the pre-interview.
So when I did ask the questions on camera, about naming names, her mantra was either it was just 'chain of command' or that she did not know who the 'O.G.A' people were. I wasn't going to get more out of her than 'chain of command.'
Having said all that, in retrospect, I should have reinforced in our pieces how she said she did not know the names of the O.G.A. personnel and how she declined to name the names of those in her chain of command.
Did she get any training on prisoner treatment or Geneva Conventions rules?
We reported on this in some of our secondary/follow-up pieces.
Private England said the military people guarding the prisoners received rudimentary training in treating prisoners: how to feed them, count them, and lock them up, but not much more.
She didn't seem to recall knowing much about the Geneva Conventions rules, but Private England's lawyer — who is highly experienced in military affairs — said once a year, these soldiers are instructed in the provisions of the Geneva Convention. But he said it was not reinforced in any way when they were 'on the ground' in Iraq.
Incidentally, Pfc England told me, and we reported in a follow-up report, that months after the pictures were taken and after the military investigation was already underway, she was asked to sign a memo of guidelines on how to properly treat prisoners. She thought it was curious she was being asked to do this 'after the fact,' so she says she made sure she dated the memo so nobody could say she had understood these rules before those pictures were taken.
Looking back, does she think that she participated in a form of torture?
She certainly acknowledges humiliating prisoners, playing 'mind games' on them, engaging in sleep deprivation, and intentionally pushing them to physical exhaustion, all in the name of breaking them down and softening them up for interrogations. She says this behavior was condoned and encouraged. I don't know if she specifically considers this to be 'torture.' She did say that in her mind, forcing inmates to get naked in jail didn't compare to some of the atrocities she felt some Iraqis had inflicted on Americans during the conflict.
You said in your report you spent four hours with her. What did you do for four hours that we didn't see on TV?
This was quite extraordinary. I anticipated spending a few minutes with her before our interview, but it worked out far differently. I spent perhaps one-and-a-half hours to two hours just talking to her without a camera immediately after I met her. I was taking notes and just having a conversation. After that, she and her lawyer wanted to go shopping for a dress for the interview, and we went along and videotaped the excursion. So we went shopping at the Fort Bragg PX.
She was hungry, so we stopped so she could eat.
For the record:
Two bacon cheeseburgers, fries, and a Sprite.
Will she be in more pictures that will emerge?
I believe so. She indicated she didn't really know if there were more pictures and she seemed to have a hazy recollection, but my sense is yes, she will be in more pictures. She said there were lots of digital cameras around the prison. I asked her about the reports of her being in pictures/video engaging in sex acts with her boyfriend. I believe this does exist and will come out, eventually. She didn't recollect if there was any such video and she semi-denied having sex in front of prisoners. She seemed to be sidestepping this question or being intentionally vague. I have reason to believe it exists, and could result in further charges against her.
What did you leave out of your TV story that you can tell us now that you can use more time and space?
Maass: "It was a true roller coaster — one minute it seemed like it might happen, the next minute it felt like it was going down the tubes for reasons beyond our control."We aired material for three days, on all of our broadcasts, so we used virtually all that we had on tape.
Outside of that, it was a true roller coaster — one minute it seemed like it might happen, the next minute it felt like it was going down the tubes for reasons beyond our control.
In off-camera conversation, she did say she felt like she had been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Technically, she did not work full time in those cell blocks at Abu Ghraib. She was in prisoner processing. But at the end of her shifts, at 10 at night, she would go over to those cell blocks to hang out with her pals, watching movies, shooting the breeze. So technically, she was not a full time prison guard. She would kind of pitch in sometimes when they were shorthanded and was just hanging around a lot, jumping into the fray when needed.
You had a quick turnaround on a story that would make worldwide news. How did you think about organizing your report?
My first thought was that people just want to hear her talk. They don't want to hear me and there didn't need to be a lot of track, but there needed to be a lot of her. People had already seen the prison pictures — she would be compelling, no matter what she said.
I felt that people would want to hear her explain those pictures, her grinning and smiling and the genesis of those pictures.
That was the focus of our initial piece. It was mostly her answers to my questions with very little track. It wasn't a true crash edit, but it was at least a high-speed fender bender. We didn't have much time as we had to edit, beam back sound for teases in prime, and deal with several significant logistical issues. Consequently, our first piece Tuesday night at 10 p.m. ran 2:40 on tape with an outboarded bite of another 15 seconds. It should have been longer, and I would have liked it to have put more on the air, but that was all we had time to log and edit. We did different pieces all through Wednesday for our various broadcasts, and put together a four-minute piece Wednesday for our 10 p.m. broadcast.
We were also live with our pieces on the CBS Early Show Wednesday and Thursday.