How one Cuba scoop led to another

In a memo to staff, Senior Managing Editor Michael Oreskes hails the AP reporting team from around the world who worked together to break an important story about the U.S. government’s secret activities in Cuba:

It could be the makings of a James Bond movie: secure phones and encrypted emails used by AP reporters trying to penetrate a government program whose operatives were themselves using secret codes and trade craft. “I have a headache” really meant “They are watching me.” And “Your sister is ill” translated to “Time to get out.”

But it’s not fiction. It’s all part of this week’s Beat of the Week _ an accountability story furthering AP’s exclusive reporting on U.S. government efforts to stir political change in Cuba.

When does one scoop lead to another? When you’re the investigative team that this spring exposed a U.S. government program that created a secret “Cuban Twitter” text messaging service to encourage unrest on the communist island.

Cuba Secret Infiltration

In this July 11, 2014, photo, Cuban students exit Marta Abreu Central University in Santa Clara, Cuba. Beginning as early as October 2009, a project overseen by the U.S. Agency for International Development sent Venezuelan, Costa Rican and Peruvian nationals to Cuba to cultivate a new generation of political activists. (AP Photo/Franklin Reyes)

Several weeks after that explosive piece hit the wire, reporter Desmond Butler‘s source gave him a new batch of documents. Tucked inside were details about security protocols with the secret codes and details of a story about an Obama administration program that secretly dispatched young Latin Americans to Cuba using the cover of health and civic programs to provoke political change.

The participants worked undercover, often posing as tourists, and traveled around the island scouting for people they could turn into political activists. But the clandestine operation _ which the AP found was continued even after the arrest of a U.S. contractor for smuggling technology into Cuba _ put those young operatives in danger.

Months in the making under the purview of international investigations editor Trish Wilson, the story reunited the original Cuban Twitter reporting team of Butler, the AP’s chief correspondent in Turkey; Washington investigative reporter Jack Gillum; Mexico-based Alberto Arce; and Andrea Rodriguez and Peter Orsi in Havana. Andean bureau chief Frank Bajak chased Peruvians involved in the project, and Hannah Dreier reported from Venezuela.

Technology played a key role in the reporting efforts: Gillum dumped the source documents into AP’s internal document repository so everyone could pore over them. He and Butler set up a [mechanism], so that reporters could see one another’s notes and contributions _ including the travelers’ contact data and interview transcriptions. Gillum also obtained key USAID emails warning contractors from travel to Cuba.

Arce helped translate the source documents, many of which were in Spanish, and interviewed four Costa Ricans who took part in the program, including Fernando Murillo, who ran an HIV prevention workshop in Cuba.

In Cuba, Rodriguez and Orsi doggedly hunted down the Cuban participants, and Rodriguez persuaded them to speak to AP on camera, no small feat given the backlash they could have faced.

Dreier, like everyone else who joined the project, had to learn to use [a secure phone]. She also set up an account to receive encrypted email because communications in Venezuela, like Cuba, are not considered secure. Dreier found four of the Venezuelan travelers, and got the money quote from a woman who acknowledged they were trying to “stir rebellion.”

Orsi reviewed the Spanish documents to ensure all translations were accurate, working meticulously to check every detail and finding last-minute changes made just hours before the story was published.

Video got involved early on. First came the interviews with the young Cubans,  who said they did not know they were targets of the program.

Desmond Butler, AP's chief correspondent in Turkey, appears on Fox News to discuss the AP investigation into another secret U.S. government program in Cuba.

Desmond Butler, AP’s chief correspondent in Turkey, appears on Fox News to discuss the AP investigation into another secret U.S. government program in Cuba.

Then London-based correspondent Raphael Satter tracked down the main organizer of the young Venezuelans recruited to go to Cuba, living now in a small house in Dublin, Ireland. Satter, along with Belfast-based cameraman John Morrisey, tried repeatedly to contact the woman, but she wouldn’t talk and even hid in her bedroom when they came knocking on her door. Their doggedness paid off after several hours when she did come out. She still refused to talk, but Morrisey got a compelling piece of video as the woman ran back into the house, slamming the door behind her.

As the story came together, Washington video supervisor David Bruns donned many hats _ voicing and editing the video piece, as well as creating graphics. A gallery of photos by Franklin Reyes, Esteban Felix and James L. Berenthal also illustrated the story.

The story played widely in newspapers worldwide and on the Internet, showing up on front pages in Mexico and Miami. Several team members appeared on NPR, Fox News and Telemundo, among other media outlets.

For their multinational effort that broke news and kept the AP out front on American secret activities in Cuba, Butler, Gillum, Arce, Rodriguez, Bajak, Dreier, Orsi and Bruns win this week’s $500 prize.

On the Brazil beat: AP covers the World Cup

As the excitement of the World Cup unfolds across Brazil, AP journalists are covering the action in text, video and photos for an array of customers around the world.

“The AP journalists and technicians on the ground have been unflagging in their mission to tell the whole story of this tournament,” said AP Vice President and Managing Editor Lou Ferrara. “Beyond our vibrant coverage of every match, they’ve been providing crucial context and unique perspectives on the political and cultural aspects of this global event.”

From street protests to rain-soaked press conferences to the stadium sidelines, here are a few highlights of the AP team at work on the Brazil beat.

For World Cup news, download the AP Mobile app or follow AP on Twitter and Facebook.

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.

Deported while unconscious: Reporter explains ‘medical repatriation’ practice

Last fall, an Iowa Supreme Court decision about the deportation of two Mexican men who were in the United States illegally caught the attention of Des Moines-based reporter David Pitt.

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David Pitt

The ruling noted, but provided few details about, an obscure process formally known as “medical repatriation,” which allows hospitals to put patients who are living in the U.S. illegally on chartered international flights back to their home countries, often while they are still unconscious.

Pitt sought more information on the practice. In interviews with immigrants, their families, attorneys and advocates spanning several months, including some conducted in Spanish with the help of his colleague Barbara Rodriguez, Pitt was able to explain the “little-known removal system.” Pitt’s tenacity resulted in a fascinating look (in text, photos and video) at how two of the nation’s key issues — immigration and health care — are intertwined.

The story received wide play around Iowa and reaction from readers around the globe. You can catch Pitt discussing the story Wednesday on NPR’s “Tell Me More.”

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In this Thursday March 7, 2013 photo, Jacinto Rodriguez Cruz, 49, leaves his home on a wheelchair with the help of his wife, Belen Hernandez in the city of Veracruz, Mexico. Cruz and another friend suffered serious injuries during a car accident last May 2008 in northwestern Iowa. After their employers insurance coverage ran out, Cruz, who was not a legal citizen, was placed on a private airplane and flown to Mexico still comatose and unable to discuss his care or voice his protest. Hospitals confronted with absorbing the cost of caring for uninsured seriously injured immigrants are quietly deporting them, often unconscious and unable to protest, back to their home countries. (AP Photo/Felix Marquez)