Who is the best investigative journalist? Forty years ago, you might have said it was me. I used the latest electronic technology at the time, which, looking back, was pretty primitive equipment. In 1977, I started out on mainframe computers in the Justice Department as a law clerk for the attorney general’s Honors Program.
Back in Boston, I taught myself MS-DOS software so I could put together a computer system for my new law office. The central processor was as big as a pair of four-drawer file cabinets. It stored data on eight-inch floppy disks, which were literally floppy. The monitor and printer each required its own desk.
Today, the cheapest cell phone has more computing power than the first space shuttle. The type of system I used is now in the Smithsonian, but back in the day it was top of the line. It worked at a crawl, but it worked. I could scour the world for information and assemble it into groundbreaking documentaries, books, and articles.
My nominee for the crown for best investigative journalist of 2020 goes to a young British guy named Eliot Ward Higgins. He was born in January 1979, two years after I started working as a federal prosecutor. Higgins was a bright kid who was bored by high school, so he dropped out. Then he was bored by his job, so he quit work to raise his baby daughter, play video games and become a blogger on the Internet.
That was when young Mr. Higgins discovered his true calling. His background in video games enabled him to become a self-taught genius on the application of satellite and Internet technology to the detection of international crime. Higgins founded a group called Bellingcat.
“The name derives from the idiom ‘belling the cat,’ which comes from a medieval fable about mice who discuss how to make a cat harmless. One suggests hooking a bell around his neck, and all the mice support the idea, but none is willing to do it.”
Higgins decided to become the brave little mouse who risks his life to put a bell on the cat to warn of approaching danger. Where I had the advantage of an intelligence background to access secret records, Higgins only had access to unclassified files, called “open-source intelligence” (OSINT in spytalk).
In 2011, at the age of 32, Mr. Higgins began writing to The Guardian newspaper to say that there was more going on in Libya and Syria than the press knew; someone was illegally supplying them with weapons. But the mainstream media just ignored local videos that he identified as probable fakes. Not our Mr. Higgins.
Perhaps because of his video-game background, Higgins became an expert in a new video investigative technology called geolocation. He would study an unidentified Internet video of a battle for background clues, such as mountain ranges, roads, and tall buildings. Then he would search through satellite photographs on Google Earth for a matching location.
I used similar techniques to identify a second nuclear site in Deir al-Zour, Syria. It was struck by the Israelis on the same day they destroyed the nearby Syrian reactor. Satellite photos showed a camouflaged factory next to an underground ammo dump. One week the structures were there; the next they were destroyed.
Folks thought I was a smart fellow, but I had the advantage of being tipped off by my intelligence sources. Higgins did all this on his own while he stayed home to care for his newborn daughter. Impressive.
The alleged experts ignored Higgins’ amateur analysis as he continued to collect (“scrape”) videotape battle footage from YouTube, geolocate the origins of the videos, and study the weapons each side was using. He began to self-publish the results of his hobby on the Internet:
“In March 2012, he started a blog under the pseudonym Brown Moses, through which he published his research into video footage of the Syrian civil war. He looked at hundreds of short clips on the Internet, localized them, and examined details of the weapons used. As a result, Higgins demonstrated that the Syrian regime was using cluster munitions and chemical weapons. In 2013, Higgins linked the Ghouta chemical attack to Bashar al-Assad.”
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