Reporter's Death Inspires a Seminar and a Lawsuit
Thursday, December 18, 2008
For more than a year, a group of Georgetown University students has been poring over documents, searching for cellphone numbers of suspected terrorists and calling Pakistani police in the middle of the night. Now their class project has come to this: They're suing the CIA and the FBI.
The students' assignment was to find out who killed Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl and why. Although the class ended last spring and many of the students graduated, they're still trying to write that last paper.
Pearl disappeared while reporting in Pakistan in 2002. A video delivered to the FBI showed him being beheaded.
Yesterday, the group, known as the Pearl Project and now attached to the nonprofit Center for Public Integrity, filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court asking for the release of records by the CIA, FBI, Defense Department and five other federal agencies.
Members of the group are seeking, among other things, FBI files on convicted terrorist Richard Reid. Pearl was reporting a story about Reid and his Pakistani handler when he disappeared. They hope the lawsuit will unearth documents or new sources in time for them to finish their final paper late this spring.
"It's not only a really personal story . . . but a story really pertinent to current events and, well, to humanity," said Rebecca Tapscott, a 2008 graduate.
The idea for the class began in summer 2002, after four men were convicted in Pakistan in connection with Pearl's death. Pearl's longtime friend, Asra Nomani, with whom Pearl was staying when he disappeared, suspected that more people were involved. She knew, for example, that a man who led police to Pearl's body, which was found outside Karachi, was allegedly one of the guards who had held him. But he was never charged.
Nomani, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and Barbara Feinman Todd, an associate dean at Georgetown, created a journalism seminar in 2007 to investigate Pearl's death and write the story that he was reporting when he was kidnapped. They also wanted to learn more about terrorist cells, counterterrorism efforts and the complicated relationship between the United States and Pakistan.
In the early days of the class, Nomani told the students of her longtime friendship with Pearl, a musician who hung out with her in Adams Morgan bars after work in the 1990s. She asked the students, a mix of undergraduates and graduates, to talk about their own memories of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
The class immediately felt different -- more emotional, weightier, students said. "We weren't sitting in front of a textbook reading about Danny Pearl's case," said Erin Delmore, a 2008 graduate. "We were in it, head-first in it."
In 2002, Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh was found guilty of planning Pearl's kidnapping and murder and was sentenced to death. Three others were sentenced to life in prison. When the trial began, Pakistani officials said seven other suspects remained at large.
At a 2007 hearing at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where he is being held, Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, said he killed Pearl. "I decapitated with my blessed right hand the head of the American Jew Daniel Pearl, in the city of Karachi, Pakistan," he said.