Published in the September 2006 issue of Harper’s Magazine, “Misinformation Intern” recounts the author’s experience interning for the Lincoln Group, a company that paid Iraqi journalists to publish information from the U.S. military in local newspapers. Read the full story here.
Last spring, during my final semester at Oxford, a cousin wrote to tell me that she was planning to work for an American company in Iraq over the summer. She suggested I join her. The company was called Iraqex, and it claimed on its website to have “expertise in collecting and exploiting information; structuring transactions; and mitigating risks through due diligence, legal strategies and security.” Iraqex was also looking for summer media interns, my cousin pointed out, who would “interact with the local media” in Baghdad and “pitch story ideas.” This was almost too good to be true.
I have wanted to be a reporter, and particularly a foreign correspondent, ever since I was given a copy of John Simpson’s Strange Places, Questionable People as a teenager. In this memoir, Simpson recounts his many adventures as a BBC reporter: lying in a gutter at Tiananmen Square in 1989, his camera rolling as bullets zipped by; being arrested during the revolution in Romania; and broadcasting from Baghdad in 1991, with U.S. bombs exploding around him. Inspired, I began writing for my high school paper, eventually becoming its editor, and at Oxford, where I majored in Classics, I joined the staff of a campus weekly. (Simpson had edited a quarterly at Cambridge.) By the time I heard from my cousin, I was already slated to begin journalism school in the fall, but I was yearning for some John Simpson-type real-world experience. In fact, Simpson had actually spent years toiling in the BBC’s London office before being sent overseas. And here I might be able to get a break right out of college.
I submitted my internship application within days. (Yet by then my cousin’s parents had decided she couldn’t go to Baghdad and Iraqex had changed its name to Lincoln Group.) After an anxious wait, I was called by one of the company’s employees. He was young, himself just out of school, and he ended our short interview by asking whether I would be able to stay focused on work “with mortar fire at the end of the street.” I was honest about my credentials. I had been to the Middle East, having vacationed in Egypt and Syria a couple of years before. During a spring break, friends and I had cycled some two thousand miles from Geneva to Damascus. And at university I had handled the pressures of translating Cicero and Polybius, But, I admitted, I couldn’t say for sure about the mortar fire. He seemed to think this would be fine.
I soon received phone calls from both of Lincoln Group’s founders, Paige Craig and Christian Bailey. Craig, a former Marine, told me that he had spent a great deal of time in Iraq and spoke very generally about the company’s important work there. When I asked about security, he assured me that for them this was not a problem. Other foreign companies drove around the country in massive 4 x 4 armored vehicles, basically advertising themselves as targets. But Lincoln Group, he said, operated “under the radar,” with employees dressed as locals and Iraqis manning the front offices. Christian Bailey, like me, was an Oxford man. Yet whereas I had whiled away my time in pubs, he had set up an expensive Bloomberg computer terminal in his dorm room and successfully played the stock market. Although Bailey initially described the media internship as the perfect launch pad for my journalism career, he later offered me a position working on private equity projects in Washington. It was not my dream to become a financial analyst, I had to tell him. I wanted to spend the summer in Baghdad working with real Iraqi reporters. Bailey said he understood but would have to get back to me. A month later, in June, I was told the media internship was mine.
I was flown across the Atlantic to meet my new employers. In downtown Washington, I was surprised by the ubiquity of fresh-faced young men, their blue short-sleeved buttondowns tucked neatly into khakis. Lincoln Group had its headquarters above an Indian grocery on K Street; a small placard in the building’s foyer read: VISITORS TO LINCOLN GROUP/ IRAQEX, 10TH FLOOR, SHOULD BE ANNOUNCED IN ADVANCE. On the tenth floor, electricians wired lights in some rooms while in others suited men conferenced behind glass walls. The company’s head of human resources, who had only just been hired herself, told me with a weary smile that things had been crazy lately.
Paige Craig popped in to see me as I filled out work papers in a tiny waiting room. Shaking my hand with a mighty grip, he uttered something to the effect of “welcome aboard.” He was very well built, with short, tidy hair and the tight khaki trousers and shirt of a military man. As he strode away, he seemed purposeful. Bailey, by contrast, was baby-faced and slight, his sandy-brown hair cut in a Bill Gates bob. In his comer office, we chatted about Oxford. He had studied economics and management at Lincoln College. When I asked whether his college had inspired the company’s new name, he shrugged. “Partly,” he said cryptically. He did say that Lincoln Group was rapidly expanding and that it offered incredible opportunities for bright young people like me: stock options were available to employees after just three months, and I might consider staying on after the summer. Christian Bailey hadn’t yet been to Iraq himself. Although he had planned numerous trips, he said, something always came up that kept him in D.C.
There was still one remaining formality before I was set to go. I had to travel to Fort Belvoir, Virginia, to pick up a Common Access Card, a kind of passepartout for military facilities all over the world. The women running the office where I was given immunizations and completed more paperwork said they had a young friend back in the District who would love my British accent. They were going to call her this very instant, they teased, and then I’d have a companion for the evening. They also talked in more solemn tones about all the brave men and women who came through the base and then shipped off to Iraq. In another room a chatty African-American nurse, contracted by the Halliburton subsidiary Kellogg, Brown & Root (KBR), took my vitals and drew blood. She joked as well about the way I spoke and wanted to know about England. Yet when I asked why she needed to make copies of my dental X rays, she suddenly was speechless. “It’s for our files,” she finally said, shooting me a quick glance and then turning away. In the long silence that followed, I understood. With a body charred beyond recognition or exploded into irretrievable parts, a dental match might be all that remained to identify me.
Only then did I really consider that I would be risking my life for men I had just met and for a company I knew very little about. My pay, I had recently learned, would be a measly $1,000 a month, meaning I would likely lose money over the summer. When I had begged out of eight days of Stateside military training so I could get to Baghdad sooner, the company was only too willing to oblige. “It makes more financial sense for us,” I was told. “We’ll get more work out of you.”
I might have aborted the venture then had I not been envisioning my burgeoning career. I had come to see myself braving the dangers of Iraq for the sake of the good news story, and I liked it when others saw me this way as well. Shortly before flying to America, I had visited my younger brother in Scotland, and he had said he was proud that I was willing to take real risks to pursue a profession. (He also was relieved that I was not becoming another investment banker, like so many other Oxford grads.) When a group of us went to an Edinburgh restaurant one evening, I was seated next to a raven-haired beauty, a half-Italian who had just graduated from university as well. After one of the courses, she asked perfunctorily about my plans for the summer holiday, and I began to talk excitedly about my impending trip. I needed to know whether I could survive in an environment like Iraq, which was now the center of the universe for the kind of reporting I wanted to do. Although dangerous, such work was essential, I said, since people back home needed to understand the painful realities at the other ends of the earth. She now leaned toward me, her dark eyes wide with interest. When I finally finished, she whispered, “That’s very sexy.”