By Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.
Much has been written about Pearl's death, including books by his wife, Mariane Pearl, and French writer Bernard-Henri Lévy.
Although Mohammed "has confessed to the crime, there hasn't been any publicly disclosed corroborating evidence," Todd wrote in an e-mail. "One of the goals of the Pearl Project is to establish whether there is any evidence linking . . . Mohammed to the murder. Even if we establish conclusively that he did murder Danny, there were three murderers and we want to establish the identities of the other two."
The class was designed to function like a newsroom, with 32 students reporting over two semesters on beats such as the FBI and Pakistani intelligence. The students learned to verify identities and track people down. They found home addresses for suspects and spoke with families. But they kept hitting walls.
They turned to the Freedom of Information Act, a 1966 law that requires government agencies to disclose requested documents unless they are withheld for reasons that include national security and privacy. But the government can decline to confirm or deny that records exist. Delays are common.
The students filed dozens of requests, including one to the FBI for communications and documents related to Mohammed's confession, hoping to find evidence corroborating it.
The FBI response, according to the complaint, was that the bureau could not process the request without a signed privacy waiver from Mohammed.
Todd instant-messaged one of the students, joking, "Do we have KSM's cell number?"
Todd contends that Mohammed's privacy is clearly outweighed by the public interest in having the records disclosed and that as a Pakistani national, Mohammed is not entitled to privacy protection under federal law.
Defense Department spokesman Bryan Whitman wrote in an e-mail that "the Department strives to strike the right balance between transparency in our operations while at the same time protecting sensitive information critical to the national security. Since the Pearl Project has an active appeal pending with the FOIA office, it would be inappropriate to discuss specifics of the request."
According to the complaint, the FBI told Todd that she needed a privacy waiver from Reid, who tried to blow up a jetliner over the Atlantic Ocean in 2001.
The students appealed the denials. Mark Zaid, a lawyer who specializes in FOIA cases, volunteered to help. The complaint filed yesterday also names the Defense Intelligence Agency, the U.S. Central Command and the State, Justice and Treasury departments.
"We have been able to establish cells beyond the four men that were convicted, been able to establish the identities of suspects that are walking the streets," Nomani said. "I really do believe that we can identify the murderers."
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.