Secrets that involve state actors or politically important individuals are frequently hidden in plain sight. Most people don’t have the time, energy, or research skills to see them, which is what keeps the issue unexamined and quiet. But those of us who are indefatigably curious often can’t help ourselves. And, like a black cat in Vietnam, poking our whiskers into the wrong place can get us into serious trouble, even if we are committed to writing about such things.
In general, state secrets seem to originate in very abstract, political (industrial, military, territorial), and bureaucratic forms of aggression, fear, and greed. These concerns inevitably trickle down to horrific policy decisions that have the potential to hurt people and create insecurity and some degree of social chaos if pointed out. Unfortunately, there is no country immune from this. It seems to come standard with the power of jurisdiction and geopolitical boundaries.
The only way to make diffuse information hidden in plain sight comprehensible is to pull together the disparate data and write a convincing story about how it all probably came into being. Stories are how we’re primarily conditioned to understand what’s going on. And a writer’s job is to facilitate the emergence of that truth for the public, even if it turns out to be just one of many “competing truths.” Even in explanatory journalism, exposing secrets is rarely open-and-shut.
State secrecy exists because it needs to—because the decisions being made are contemptible (though sometimes necessary) or because the truth would create serious vulnerability in certain influential groups and individuals. History is rife with examples. Current events are also full of them (implicitly, sometimes explicitly) if you know how to look.
I’m not talking about conspiracy theories that involve secret cabals and cartoon evils. I’ve never witnessed anything like that. Instead, I’ve discovered very mundane things, real life horrors, birthed from unethical entities making self-serving, highly ambitious choices and fortified with time, encouragement, and usually immense resources. Anyone with the inclination, research skills, and time can discover as much. But not everyone can write well enough to help people understand. More importantly, not everyone wants to or thinks they should.
You not only have to do your homework and be able to write about it, but you have to be mature enough to ask Cui bono? and consider the most quotidian possibilities, because that is usually where you discover useful threads. The story you tell needs to dramatize the subject matter enough that people can stick with it to the end. Dramatic tension is the delivery mechanism, even if the final impact of your writing proves too far-reaching and explosive. In most cases, it will be. The truth rarely sets people free. More often than not, it burns a wide swath through everyone involved.
The first step to being a good investigative writer is being fascinated with details and a good student of history and media. Read everything. Keep copious notes about anything that draws your attention. When you wake up in the middle of the night thinking about something, don’t just roll over and go back to sleep. Turn on your laptop and start writing those thoughts and insights down. Then keep writing.
I would be remiss if I didn’t also encourage the use of a good research library in addition to the internet. Research libraries are invaluable. They contain a lot that isn’t retrievable online (microfiche, microfilm, archival data, FOIA queries, information stored only at state and federal levels or in restricted archives). When someone out in the world refuses to talk to you or send you information, chances are what they’re holding back can be found in a newspaper or magazine archive. And they don’t even know.
When a researcher draws the right conclusions and has an insight that makes a serious secret visible, it’s usually a life-defining moment. She can collect her findings and then write about it and attempt to expose it to the world, risking personal ruin (or murder). Or she can decide that being a martyr for exposing a secret—that may be subsequently covered up or otherwise made invisible anyway—is a bad outcome and that other very good work can be done without making herself so vulnerable.
States will always have their secrets. It’s a fair bet that most will seize any advantage, regardless of the ethical implications and will then need to cover up what they can’t bury. Key individuals may refuse to get involved in unethical projects and activities, acknowledging that simply following orders or following the funding is no excuse. But they can be side-lined or removed. One wonders whether it’s usually better not to know.
Personally, I take a moderate approach. Most things I discover, I write about, even if those pieces don’t always find a publisher. But my life is important to me. So there are a few items, uncovered through methodically correlating public domain, trade publication, and records searches, that I will not talk about. It’s better to live and write another day.