A special report compiled by Georgetown faculty, graduate and undergraduate students released last week provided never-before-seen evidence about the murder of The Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl by al-Qaida operatives in Pakistan in 2002 — including confirmation of the identity of his killer.
Dubbed the Pearl Project, the investigation began as a journalism class at Georgetown in September 2007 headed by Georgetown journalism Director Barbara Feinman Todd and Asra Nomani, a former colleague of Pearl’s. Run as a seminar over two semesters, the course consisted of 32 student-journalists. After the conclusion of the class, the Pearl Project moved to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists at the Center for Public Integrity. A small group of students continued to work on the investigation along with Feinman Todd and Nomani.
“Undergraduate students had just as much responsibility in the class as graduate students, and their beat assignments were equally challenging. Many undergrads went above and beyond completing an assignment and turned into serious investigative journalists,” Pearl Project Managing Editor Kira Zalan (GRD ’10) said in an email.
Undergraduates participated in a wide variety of project functions. Assigned multiple tasks, the students investigated websites hosting the video of Pearl’s murder, studied forensic techniques that could be performed on the video, investigated aspects of the Pakistani government, followed individuals or groups such as the video’s courier and the Pearl family and took photos and videos of the class, according to notes in the report.
Zalan cited the examples of Jessica Rettig (COL ’09), who knocked on the door of an unresponsive source while on break in Florida, and Mary Cirincione (SFS ’08), who obtained previously unreleased FBI documents about the bomber Pearl had been investigating when he was kidnapped. Students developed sources, conducted interviews, shared findings with the class through presentations and written assignments and often clocked long hours, making phone calls after midnight to reach sources in Pakistan, Caitlin McDevitt (COL ’08), a student in the course, said. McDevitt is now the deputy style and gossip editor at Politico.
Zalan was one of those who continued to work on the project. She spent a total of three and a half years reporting on Daniel Pearl.
“I would work entire nights and weekends, and it didn’t feel like work but more a mission, a passion or a hobby. Because of the project, I plan to turn investigative journalism into a career,” she said in an e-mail.
The project pioneered new journalism technology, including a wiki that allowed students to collaborate in a virtual electronic newsroom. Over three and a half years, the team was able to build a chronology of Pearl’s kidnapping and murder and the subsequent police investigation, using hundreds of interviews and thousands of documents. The project also filed a lawsuit against eight government agencies, including the CIA.
Pearl was kidnapped in January 2002 while conducting investigative work by a group of militants. Unsure what to do with their prisoner, the kidnappers contacted Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the self-described mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, who is currently being held at the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Mohammed and two others arrived at a compound in Karachi where Pearl was being held. Mohammed then slashed Pearl’s throat, but an accomplice failed to operate the video camera they were using to document the scene, and Mohammed re-enacted the killing by decapitating Pearl.
In the video released by the killers, only the hand of Pearl’s killer is visible. The report states that U.S. officials used vascular technology, or vein matching, to demonstrate that the hand of the unseen man who killed Pearl on the video is Mohammed’s, but this information was not released to the public until the Pearl Project’s report.
Mohammed had confessed to the murder at a military hearing in 2007, but the United States has not charged him with the crime due to doubts about the validity of testimony obtained while Mohammed was in CIA custody, where he was waterboarded 183 times. In all, the report identified 27 men, including guards and drivers, who played a part in the kidnapping and murder, 14 of whom are currently at large in Pakistan.
“Pearl’s story is a sad and inspiring human story, but for young journalists, it’s particularly poignant,” McDevitt said in an email.