One of the most impressive pieces of investigative journalism in recent years has been the uncovering of the CIA’s post-9/11 programme of extraordinary rendition.
Journalists from all over the world contributed to uncovering the CIA’s programme of kidnapping people and transporting them to countries with records of using torture for interrogation. But much of the credit needs to go to freelance Stephen Grey, whose reporting on the subject was published in may publications including the New Statesman, the Sunday Times, *and the *New York Times.
But aside from its intrinsic significance, the story is also probably the premier recent example of computer-assisted reporting in British journalism.
Grey uncovered the fleet of CIA-owned aircraft used for rendition by obtaining huge databases of flight logs from the FAA in America, data collected by plane spotters and provided by an aviation-industry source.
He then used Analyst’s Notebook, a sophisticated (and expensive) piece of software normally used by police and intelligence agencies, to cross-reference the thousands of individual flights with details gleaned from the anecdotes told by the handful of prisoners who had emerged from the rendition programme to tell their tales of being kidnapped, bundled aboard luxurious business jets and taken to countries in the middle east to be tortured.
This is the sort of skillset that journalists will increasingly need to do extraordinary investigative stories in a society where public records come by the gigabyte on DVDs rather than as a stack of photocopies leaked in a brown envelope.
Grey’s new book on the subject, Ghost Plane, is compelling reading, and includes a few pages on his methodology. The dataset he used is now available on the book’s web site. The public version was developed with help from Kim Stenbryggen and Tommy Kaas of the Danish International Center for Analytical Reporting.
Grey will be at the Frontline Club in London on Friday evening to talk about his work; go if you can.