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Pajama report on the Afghan minerals story

James Risen is angry. Writers who publish their work online in chronological order — or, as he describes them in an interview with Yahoo! News, "bloggers" who are "sitting around in their pajamas" instead of doing real reporting — shouldn’t "deconstruct other people’s stories." (Apparently, Risen also used more colorful language.) Pushing back on (what ...

James Risen is angry. Writers who publish their work online in chronological order — or, as he describes them in an interview with Yahoo! News, "bloggers" who are "sitting around in their pajamas" instead of doing real reporting — shouldn’t "deconstruct other people’s stories." (Apparently, Risen also used more colorful language.)

Pushing back on (what I would call gentle) criticism here and elsewhere of his sensational Afghan minerals article, the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter explained that he had first learned of the country’s natural riches, and the Pentagon task force working to help the Kabul government develop them, from former CIA officer Milt Bearden. That task force is led by Paul Brinkley, a deputy under secretary of defense who has led efforts to develop the Iraqi economy.

"Milt convinced Brinkley to talk to me," he told Yahoo’s John Cook, "and Brinkley convinced other Pentagon officials to go on the record. I think Milt realized that things were going so badly in Afghanistan that people would be willing to talk about this."

Fair enough.

The key question, for me, remains: Where does this $1 trillion (actually $908 billion) figure come from and how realistic is it? Is it based on economically recoverable resources or just an estimate of everything that’s in the ground? What do we know about the extraction costs involved? Or was it just a figure calculated to generate headlines?

Because here’s the thing. People have known for decades that there was a lot of valuable stuff under the ground in Afghanistan. They may not have been able to put solid figures on it, or generate sophisticated thermal geomagnetic and spectral imaging maps, but generally speaking they were aware that there was gold in them thar hills.

So why wasn’t it mined? For very good reasons: poor security, terrible infrastructure and market access, little to no government capacity, and so on. Unfortunately, those conditions still exist today — big time.

What’s changed, then, is you have a U.S. war effort on the ropes, and some well-intentioned folks in the Pentagon who knew exactly what they were doing when they came up with that $908 billion figure. And so, I would argue, did the New York Times when it ran with it in its lede.

UPDATE: More pushback here from Dean Baquet, the Washington bureau chief of the Times. He tells Lloyd Grove, writing for the Daily Beast: "Criticism from other journalists who claim it was ‘widely known’ is bullshit. Maybe they should have written about it."

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