Deep Dives Features

Fairfax County, Virginia

The story of James Gordon Meek, an investigative journalist who hid secrets from everyone close to him.

A short drive from Arlington Cemetery, the Siena Park Residences are tucked into a block of uniform brick-and-concrete new-builds, hardly more notable than a highway marker. At dawn, just before the rush of morning commuters, this stretch of Arlington feels unusually placid, making it hard to believe how close it leans to the morally murky swamplands of Washington. But on the morning of 27 April 2022, the stillness broke, if only briefly, when a fleet of Arlington County police vehicles, accompanied by an armoured Lenco BearCat G2 – something most people would assume was a tank – unloaded a team of ten or so heavily-armed, unmarked personnel upon the doors of Siena Park. Within ten minutes, their job was finished, and they were gone.

Several hours later, a producer at ABC named James Gordon Meek tendered his resignation. His email cited ‘personal reasons.’ Little else was said: no scandal, no breaking news. Somehow, a high profile journalist like Meek went under the radar without the slightest ripple of media turbulence. He had virtually disappeared, not only from ABC, but from a book deal with Simon & Schuster, from Twitter and from his apartment on the sixth floor of Siena Park.

For more than two decades, James Gordon Meek stood as a renowned American journalist, known mostly for his military reportage on terrorism and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2001, Meek was at the Pentagon reporting within the hour of the American Airlines Flight 77 crash. Ten years later, with extensive knowledge of Al-Qaeda stemming from interviews and his own first-hand witness of the trials and arraignments of members of the terrorist organisation, he became senior investigator on the House Committee for Homeland Security. In 2013, he landed a job with ABC News in D.C. and returned from his brief affair in government back to journalism.

I didn’t hear about the raid until it came into the public eye in October, when an FBI representative told Rolling Stone that its agents were present at the Siena Park apartments the morning of 27 April. All at once, the pieces of a narrative that had for months been hazy, if not completely invisible, seemed to be coming together. The scoop contained claims from anonymous sources that the agents had seized Meek’s laptop, which allegedly cached classified documents.

Just before Christmas, I returned home to my parents’ neighbourhood on the outskirts of Arlington, Virginia. They stuck around after my father left the US Army and eventually disentangled himself from a Pentagon career that included stints under the Obama and Trump administrations, but they had become so disillusioned with the northern Virginia elite that they opted for an entirely different career, trading Guantánamo for the Bahamas when they opened a regional branch for a cruise travel agency.

One night at dinner, we discussed Meek’s disappearance. My father was noticeably disturbed by the news not only as a citizen, but also as a friend. Their paths had crossed some years back, as is almost inevi­table in the D.C. area. Politically, they resided on opposite ends of the spectrum, but could still enjoy a pint together at SpaceBar, a space-themed ‘beer bar and grilled cheese emporium’ in Falls Church. ‘We still found common ground in our mutual respect for the soldiers and a desire to see justice done,’ he said. ‘Not simply expediency – which almost always leads to injustice.’

He had managed to get in touch with Meek, though he didn’t know his whereabouts – perhaps no one did. Their exchange made it clear that whatever he had experienced in the months following the raid had been harrowing. Meek was returning to the faith he had abandoned as a young man, he’d confessed. My father asked us to pray for him.

My father had seen behaviour from federal appointees that eroded his confidence in the government. He suggested something along the lines of what I had read in the comments of Meek’s last Twitter post or news articles from October – that a government cover-up of sorts was in play. It would not be the first time for Meek to get involved in this kind of thing, although up until now he’d found himself on the periphery of conspiracy, never its centre.

In January of 2008, a NATO 5.56mm bullet was pulled from the body of Pfc. Dave Sharrett II, a young infantryman in the 101st Airborne Division from Fairfax County, Virginia, who had died in Iraq. Several days after his father, Dave Sharrett Sr was informed of his son’s death, another unexpected knock sounded on Sharrett’s door – their casualty assistance officer informed them that their son may have been killed by friendly fire. This was then confirmed in May by the findings of a new autopsy report. The report also stated that the lieutenant who had shot Sharrett withdrew from the battlefield with the medevac, leaving his team without a commander and leaving Sharrett to lie, alone, bleeding from a wound to his femoral artery. He died 75 minutes later.

James Gordon Meek, like many who later in life get lured into the swamp of federal politics, grew up in northern Virginia. As a student at Langley High School in McLean, he was taught by Dave Sharrett Sr., who would sometimes bring his baby boy to class, known amongst the students as ‘Bean’. Years later, on behalf of his former teacher, Meek kept close tabs on the movements of Pfc. Sharrett’s unit during its deployment to Iraq.

At first, the Army refused to write a permanent letter of reprimand to Lt Timothy Hanson, who had shot Sharrett, although his supervisor had obtained drone and F-16 videos of the incident immediately afterwards. It was only when soldiers from the 101st secretly arrived at Sharrett Sr.’s hotel room outside of Fort Campbell, Kentucky, where he’d come for a memorial service a year later that he found out this footage existed. From the hotel bathroom, he called Meek, outraged.

‘Cover-ups in the military are rarely exposed,’ Meek has said. ‘Finding accountability is even rarer because the truth often gets buried with the dead.’ But after helping obtain the footage, filing a series of FOI requests, compiling statements from the helicopter pilots and discovering even more videos of the tragedy, he helped persuade the Army to launch a third investigation.

‘He pursued that story out of a sense of what I felt was decency, honour and respect for the men and women who served,’ my father said, ‘but also out of a feeling of mistrust with the bureaucracy of the Department of Defense.’ He described Meek simply as a ‘good journalist’, meaning he was sceptical of the bureaucratic machinery and doggedly pursued the truth. The two – scepticism and integrity – he implied to be twin virtues.

The Army stuck to the conclusions of its investigation and took no further punitive action, leaving Sharrett with the sense that its claim of ‘accountability in word and deed’ was utterly lacking substance. Sharrett then introduced Meek to Ray and Debbie Gannon, whose son Jeremiah Johnson had been killed overseas. They, too, had been left with obscured, conflicting reports from the Army.

Sfc. Jeremiah Johnson was killed during the Tongo Tongo ambush in 2017, where four American Special Forces soldiers and four Nigerien soldiers lost their lives. According to the Pentagon, the US soldiers, part of Operation Detachment Alpha (ODA) 3212, had been ambushed after a lower-ranking officer had allegedly misrepresented the purpose of a series of three missions to locate and attack an Islamic State leader. This was the official story – that ODA 3212 had failed to run routine integration rehearsals with the Nigerien forces, had lied about the pretences of their mission and was overall ‘not indicative of Special Operations teams’, in the words of General Thomas Waldhauser, Commander of AFRICOM.

My father, having been the acting Assistant Director for Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict (ASD SO/LIC) at the time of the raid, filmed commentary for Meek’s 2021 documentary 3212 Un-Redacted, which investigated the heavily redacted report of the mission and the conflicting narratives given by the Army to the bereaved. He calls Waldhauser’s statement ‘unfair’. Entire detachments of experienced special forces soldiers simply don’t go rogue. And even if they were undertrained, a mission like this doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It would require approval from higher up. Someone senior, like a four-star general, would have to vouch for their capability.

But that was not the narrative the Department of Defense (DoD) chose to tell. I asked if he sensed something was awry. ‘From the get-go. I knew there was something. The initial reporting was incomplete and inaccurate. AFRICOM,’ who was leading the investigation, ‘was not telling us the story.’ In the documentary, my father comments: ‘If I could go back and figure out who gave them that first report I’d fucking choke the shit out of them.’

Prior to his disappearance, ABC was positioning James Gordon Meek’s 3212 Un-Redacted for an Emmy nomination. He’d been nominated for numerous Emmys, even winning one in 2017, but this would’ve been his first as a documentarian. But like the rest of his public persona, the award campaign immediately ceased after 27 April.

Trawling through Meek’s record, it became evident that even back in 2007, his beat was generating a buzz of scepticism, albeit one that, if not necessarily aligning him with a shadowy government, at least accused him of turning a blind eye to it. During a C-SPAN programme called Open Phones, Meek addresses the rise in ‘home-grown’ terrorism in the wake of the thwarted JFK Airport bomb plot. A caller from Scottsdale, Arizona, told Meek: ‘You have people like you, sir, that are pushing this propaganda that’s absolutely ridiculous. You’ve got Black Ops in our government funding this ridiculous stuff. Al-Qaeda was invented by the Americans. Us. Don’t you understand?’

When the Rolling Stone article came out in October, people started connecting the dots between Meek’s unfavourable picture of the DoD and what the former AFRICOM commander Don Bolduc refers to in 3212 Un-Redacted as ‘The Club’ – the establishment, more commonly and sinisterly called the ‘Deep State’. Had Meek been making the wrong people too uncomfortable?

In February, the Department of Justice published a press release announcing, officially, the arrest of James Gordon Meek. He was charged with transportation of child pornography. A federal magistrate judge in the Virginia Eastern District Court signed a search warrant last April after receiving a tip-off from Dropbox.

Whatever healthy degree of scepticism I consider myself to have, it doubled down, making me second-guess my own willingness to believe the news – was I really going to accept the first explanation handed to me from the official angle, which I had been priming myself to mistrust since October? Immediately, I realised how outrageous this sounded, but I wasn’t the only one shocked that the arrest wasn’t related to Meek’s reporting – it was later reported that the editor-in-chief of Rolling Stone skirted around some of the details of that initial breaking story.

Perhaps I should have seen this news as somewhat reassuring, despite how atrocious it was – objectively speaking, wouldn’t it have been worse for my latent suspicions to be confirmed, to find out that the government had tried to silence a journalist with a track record for exposing its failures? But on the other hand, it felt, on a human and emotional scale, worse for someone I respected to be exposed as a paedophile.

In March, the last my father heard about Meek was from his mother, who relayed this message from her son: ‘I unexpectedly find myself in pre-trial solitary confinement in Alexandria.’ It sounded unusually punitive, and similar to the treatment of Joshua Schulte, a CIA hacker who leaked the agency’s trove of its own hacking tools. When the government initially failed to indict him for the leak, it pursued charges of receipt, possession and transportation of child pornography, which FBI agents stumbled upon after they had seized his computer hardware. The government pushed to detain him until his trial, to which he objected: ‘The crime I am charged with is in fact a non-­violent, victimless crime.’ Later on, Schulte was placed in solitary confinement after accessing a cellphone while in prison, which he could have potentially used for more leaks, FBI officials feared.

Transportation of child pornography, which Meek is charged with, is obviously not a ‘victimless crime’. It partakes in and encourages human trafficking and the sexual abuse of children, creating ripples that cross state and national borders in ways that make it very difficult to assess the real impact of the crime. Which was, understandably, why the FBI got involved where state jurisdiction was limited.

Whatever the rationale, eyebrows will be raised wherever the FBI gets involved. The name says it all – they’re a federal bureau, an arm of the bureaucracy, which, to many, has become an inherent evil and just another name for the Deep State.

To the claims that the Deep State is a disgruntled conservative fantasy? ‘Bullshit. I’ve seen it.’ Perhaps my father, a disgruntled conservative, was the wrong person to ask. But his opinion isn’t based on mere speculation – the clash with AFRICOM was only one of a number of first-hand experiences he could’ve pointed to. ‘They may not be handing out membership cards, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. It’s a group of likeminded bureaucrats that exist to protect the bureaucracy and their own prerogatives.’

I can see how he gets there. When you have witnessed both the evils of war and the Kafkaesque machinery of government, you might search for an overarching clash of good and evil, something to give meaning to incomprehensible actions, to write a broader narrative with a built-in chance for redemption and heroism. Perhaps that is why, so often, as detainees await trial, they turn to religion – Schulte to Islam, Meek back to Christianity.

It’s a self-serving cycle – we see people act badly, we believe they will continue to act badly. When they attempt to issue justice, we search for ulterior motives we believe must be there, breeding more scepticism and therefore more a paranoia that the system will want to crack down on dissidence at all costs. But I can also see how a system made up of human beings really would crack down on threats to its power, and how what we call paranoia might be closer to realism. Or maybe I’ve fallen into the cycle of misanthropy, too.

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