The story of a prolific pedophile: How AP’s investigation came together

The discovery of a teacher whom the FBI regards as one of the most prolific pedophiles in memory has set off a crisis in the close-knit community of international schools and prompted hundreds of people to contact the bureau, greatly expanding the potential number of suspected victims.

There were decades of missed opportunities to bring William Vahey out of the shadows, The Associated Press revealed this week.

This combination of photos provided by the Federal Bureau of Investigation shows William James Vahey in 1986, 1995, 2004 and 2013. Vahey, 64, killed himself in Luverne, Minn. on March 21, 2014. (AP Photo/FBI, File)

This combination of photos provided by the FBI shows William James Vahey in 1986, 1995, 2004 and 2013. (AP Photo/FBI, File)

The AP report and follow-up drew on AP’s global resources, as explained here by Mexico City-based Michael Weissenstein, a lead reporter in the investigation:

When did the scale of this story become evident to you?
The potential scale of William Vahey’s crimes was clear starting last month, when the FBI announced that they had photographic evidence that 90 boys had been drugged and molested, and they were seeking information from students and others who knew Vahey throughout his 40-year career. The FBI quoted Vahey himself as saying to his boss, after he was caught but before he killed himself last March, that he had been doing this all his life. What wasn’t clear was the scale of the missed opportunities to stop Vahey far sooner. This became evident as AP reporters around the world dug into Vahey’s past, digging up records and finding and interviewing people who had known him over the last four decades.

What were the obstacles and challenges in reporting it out?
This was a story about one of the most sensitive and upsetting possible topics _ child sexual molestation _ that sprawled over four decades and 10 countries on four continents. Many of Vahey’s students from years ago now lived in other countries and never knew they had been molested. The parents of students who are still minors understandably were deeply concerned about their children’s privacy. And schools and law-enforcement agencies were reluctant to talk due to concerns about privacy.

How did the global resources of AP factor into the reporting process?
We had a reporter with local sources and knowledge in every region where Vahey had worked. Tami Abdollah in Los Angeles dug deeply into the records of Vahey’s 1969 arrest for child-sex abuse, finding detailed court files and interviewing retired law-enforcement officials who knew how the system worked at the time. Bureau Chief Josh Goodman in Caracas, spoke at length to parents and staff there, unearthing details and anecdotes that allowed us to draw a detailed picture of Vahey’s time in Venezuela. Reporters in London, Minnesota, Jakarta, Dubai and Nicaragua all contributed further essential facts and color. A story like this would have been impossible without the ability to instantly activate the AP’s network of experienced reporters across the world.

Why AP is publishing story about missing American tied to CIA

The Associated Press today is publishing an article about serious blunders at the Central Intelligence Agency and an effort to cover them up. At the heart of the story is a retired FBI agent, Robert Levinson, who was recruited as a spy by a rogue group of analysts inside the CIA. Without any authority to do so, the analysts sent Levinson into Iran, where he disappeared in 2007.

His condition and whereabouts are not known and the Iranian government says it has no information.

Senior Vice President and Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll explains why AP decided to publish this story:

Publishing this article was a difficult decision. This story reveals serious mistakes and improper actions inside the U.S. government’s most important intelligence agency. Those actions, the investigation and consequences have all been kept secret from the public.

Publishing articles that help the public hold their government to account is part of what journalism is for, and especially so at The Associated Press, which pursues accountability journalism whenever it can. This seems particularly true on this subject at a time when the decisions of intelligence agencies are being extensively debated.

The AP has been seeking information on Levinson’s whereabouts from governments, agencies and any other source possible for several years. Government officials tell us that they, too, have hit a wall, though their efforts continue.

In the absence of any solid information about Levinson’s whereabouts, it has been impossible to judge whether publication would put him at risk. It is almost certain that his captors already know about the CIA connection but without knowing exactly who the captors are, it is difficult to know whether publication of Levinson’s CIA mission would make a difference to them. That does not mean there is no risk. But with no more leads to follow, we have concluded that the importance of the story justifies publication.

Backstory: Confirming information about secret US-Iran talks

AP’s Sunday story revealing that the U.S. and Iran had held secret talks before the announcement of a nuclear deal contained this paragraph:

The AP was tipped to the first U.S.-Iranian meeting in March shortly after it occurred, but the White House and State Department disputed elements of the account and the AP could not confirm the meeting. The AP learned of further indications of secret diplomacy in the fall and pressed the White House and other officials further. As the Geneva talks appeared to be reaching their conclusion, senior administration officials confirmed to the AP the details of the extensive outreach.

Contrary to a number of accounts since Sunday, AP did not sit on the story for several months. We aggressively pursued the story throughout that period, trying everything we could to get it to the wire. In fact, some of the information we were tipped to in March turned out to be inaccurate.

“A tip is not a story,” said AP Washington Bureau Chief Sally Buzbee. “AP was attempting to confirm, to its standards, what had happened. We published the story when we had the vital details that we needed satisfactorily confirmed.”

To quote from AP’s News Values and Principles:

“The AP routinely seeks and requires more than one source. Stories should be held while attempts are made to reach additional sources for confirmation or elaboration. In rare cases, one source will be sufficient – when material comes from an authoritative figure who provides information so detailed that there is no question of its accuracy.”