Matt Spetalnick on exclusive on U.S. diplomats accusing Tillerson of breaking child soldiers law
Earlier this month, Reuters reported exclusively that a group of about a dozen U.S. State Department officials had taken the unusual step of formally accusing Secretary of State Rex Tillerson of violating a federal law designed to stop foreign militaries from enlisting child soldiers. A confidential State Department “dissent” memo said Tillerson breached the Child Soldiers Prevention Act when he decided in June to exclude Iraq, Myanmar, and Afghanistan from a U.S. list of offenders in the use of child soldiers. This was despite the department publicly acknowledging that children were being conscripted in those countries and was also at odds with a unanimous recommendation some of the most senior diplomats, human rights officers and government’s own lawyers. In a Reuters Best: Journalist Spotlight Q&A, Matt Spetalnick offers a behind-the-scenes look at how he and Jason Szep landed the exclusive and, with help from bureaus in Afghanistan, Myanmar and Iraq and from Top News editor Ross Colvin in Washington, reported the deeper story.
Q: How did you and Jason score this exclusive?
A: It was a natural outgrowth of our recent in-depth reporting on human trafficking – the problem of modern slavery – which yielded a series of exclusives and deep-dive articles during Barack Obama’s second term. That included the forerunner to this story back in June when we broke the story of the omission of these three strategically important countries ahead of the State Department’s announcement of its annual list of offenders in the use of child soldiers.
Q: What types of reporting was involved?
A: The critical component was gaining access to confidential documents that the State Department wanted to keep under wraps showing how Tillerson’s decision came about and the storm it created within the diplomatic ranks. This involved nurturing the right sources who also helped us tell the fuller story through their own experiences. What also enriched our coverage was leveraging Reuters global reach to bring in reporting from our colleagues in Asia and the Middle East.
Q: Why do you think this was an important story to tell our global readers and clients?
A: It’s rewarding whenever you can shed light on a problem as disturbing as the use of children on the battlefield. This story created a stir in Washington, including a 15-minute grilling of the State Department spokeswoman at the daily briefing. It also underscored tensions between Tillerson and veteran career diplomats at a time when some critics say the State Department is being hollowed out under the Trump administration.
Q: What makes you passionate about journalism?
A: Breaking news that sets the agenda, doing in-depth reporting, explaining American foreign policy to the outside world (even when it seems inexplicable) and in some cases maybe effecting positive change – tempered by the reality that even the most compelling stories often recede quickly from the radar screen.