Dmitri Ivashchenko, Margo Humphries and Kira Zalan all worked on the Pearl Project during their time as journalism students at Georgetown. The class was a semester-long course designed to train budding journalists in the real-life practices of investigative journalism while uncovering the truth about the murder of former Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. Each found the class to be extremely valuable, and all said that they would take another class like this if they had the opportunity.
What was the most valuable thing you learned from the course?
Dmitri Ivashchenko: Perseverance. There was no definitive reason to believe that a student-faculty investigative journalism project out of Washington D.C. was going to truly be able to investigate a crime scene thousands of miles away, and years past. Yet, perseverance, dedication, passion and a desperate “youthful exuberance” was able to achieve what experienced investigators either missed or chose to ignore.
What was the most helpful tool you used during the investigation?
Margo Humphries: Technology certainly played a big role in the investigation and indeed made things possible that wouldn’t have been in the immediate months after Danny was killed. For instance, I vividly recall my first “true” interview via Skype with Wall Street Journal reporter Alan Cullison. He was in Moscow, following leads for tomorrow’s front page. I was in my sparsely furnished Georgetown campus apartment, the hour late and the parties already beginning to assemble around me. Yet there we were, discussing a possible lead in Danny’s narrative. Furthermore, the extensive use of Google Chat among my classmates and I meant that class didn’t occur just once a week. Whenever we were online, as evidenced by the green dot next to one of our names, we were working on the Pearl Project as a team by bouncing ideas off each other and coordinating our next steps in the investigation.
What was unique about your particular beat?
Dmitri Ivashchenko: My particular beat started with looking at Saud Memon and his mysterious death, and finished with investigating the Daniel Pearl beheading tape, trying to glean anything we may have previously missed. I was fascinated with Saud Memon, and the strange circumstances surrounding his death. After being held in an unknown prison for multiple years, a human skeleton weighing 18 kg was dumped outside his parents’ house, dying days later. His death has remained shrouded in mystery as well as his role in Danny’s murder. Pakistani authorities denied knowledge of his torture and Guantanamo had no records of his stay. I remember interviewing two people about him, but we were unable to find anything conclusive. His story has truly continued to pursue me and I continue to ask myself what his last years were like, how he was caught and his role in Danny’s abduction and murder.
What was the biggest challenge you encountered?
Kira Zalan: The biggest challenge was filing nearly one hundred FOIA requests and appeals and not receiving any useful documents from the U.S. government. We found that several agencies were not only denying us the information that could help us solve the case, but was avoiding having to comply with the FOIA process. We had situations where an appeal fax number or address would not be provided, and the agency would claim to have never received our appeal. We would start the process over, just to run into another procedural problem that delayed responses. Also, many records requests received the rubber-stamp denial. For example, they would send our request back saying that we needed a privacy waiver signature from Richard Reid, the convicted terrorist known as “the shoe bomber,” before they could release his records.
Can you describe the most rewarding part of the project?
Margo Humphries: On Thursday, January 20, 2011, shortly after 8 a.m., I was driving up the Spur Road on my way to work at Big Sky Resort. Steve Inskeep (who hosts Morning Edition on NPR) had hardly even begun to mention the release of the Pearl Project’s findings, and I had a physical reaction to the point I had to pull over. It was the day our fearless leader Asra had envisioned for nearly a decade. We had lost an incalculable amount of sleep collectively, but as a team, we felt our moment of pure and unwavering pride.