Reporters on the Job
TEA WITH SPIES: In today's story about US intelligence agents recruiting in Afghanistan (page 1), Lutfullah Mashal, who is Philip Smucker's interpreter, was invited to "tea" at the airport near Khost where US special forces have set up a base of operations. "I went to the airport to meet the officers," says Mashal. "I wasn't sure what to expect. I thought they wanted me to give them some information about a peaceful rally by the royalists to the airport in Khost. Or maybe they were interested to ask me some questions about the area, the terrain, and Al Qaeda activities." At the airfield gate, he told the US soldier that he was there to see an officer, who had given his name simply as "L." Mashal was led to a tent inside the compound.
One man zipped closed the tent entrance and told Mashal to sit down on a sleeping bag in the middle of the tent. Then, three men started asking him questions about his education, languages, and life. At the same time, another officer asked him if he could take Mashal's picture. "I was worried that maybe they suspected me as an Al Qaeda member. Maybe they would fly me to Kandahar - or worse, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba." Instead, they offered him a well-paying job.
"In the end, I decided that I wasn't interested because the work sounded a bit too difficult. Also, I am an Afghan, and who knows how long the Americans will be interested in our country. If the American intervention goes wrong, I'll be blamed as a 'spy for the Americans.' "
MISTAKEN IDENTITIES: While reporting today's story in Central America (page 7), Catherine Elton found that she had to explain her true profession - twice. During a border crossing between Mexico and Guatemala, she helped the people she was interviewing - who couldn't read or write - fill out immigration forms. But a Guatemala border guard told them they didn't have the proper stamp in their passports to get into Mexico. They did get in. But when they tried to cross back into Guatemala, the same border agent now said they had left Guatemala illegally, and they had to pay a fine of 200 quetzales ($30) each. Catherine tried to explain, but the guard grew angry and accused her of being a smuggler, or coyote. "He eventually calmed down and let us through."
Later, Catherine was talking to a group of prostitutes in a health clinic in Ciudad Hidalgo. They were waiting for a weekly checkup, required by law. "The doctor came out to the waiting room several times to call people in one by one. After all the prostitutes had had their checkups, he came out again and asked if I was ready for my check-up. I politely explained that I was just keeping them company."
- David Clark Scott