The Pentagon knows its contractors for staffing overseas military bases have engaged extensively in trafficking workers — despite U.S. laws and government pledges of ‘zero tolerance.’ But punishment is scant and violators get more contracts.

Entry type: Single project

Country/area: Jordan

Publishing organisation: ARIJ, NBC News, Washington Post, Al Manassa; Khuyut; Jummar; Al Monaqeboon and Al Iqtisadi; Raseef 22.

Organisation size: Big

Publication date: 2022-10-28

Language: Arabic, English

Authors: Molly Boigon
Andrew W. Lehren
Laura Strickler
Courtney Kube
Anna Schecter
Yousef H. Alshammari
Katie McQue
Hoda Osman
Yasmena AlMulla
Tanka Dhakal
Didi Martinez
Melvin Harris Jr.
Agustin Armendariz
Emilia Díaz Struck
Mike Hudson


Molly Boigon: freelancing reporter

Andrew W. Lehren: senior editor on the NBC News investigations team.

Laura Strickler: senior investigative producer for NBC News.

Courtney Kube: correspondent at NBC .

Anna Schecter: senior producer in NBC .

Yousef H. Alshammari: Writer and Journalist.

Katie McQue: journalist

Hoda Osman: journalist and journalism trainer.

Yasmena AlMulla: News Producer at Manshoor.

Tanka Dhakal: A multimedia reporter.

Didi Martinez: associate producer with NBC .

Melvin Harris Jr.: Was an intern with NBC News

Agustin Armendariz: ICIJ’s Senior Data Reporter.

Emilia Díaz Struck: ICIJ’s research editor and Latin America coordinator.

Mike Hudson: Senior Editor at (ICIJ).

Project description:

To run America’s military bases, the Pentagon spends hundreds of millions of
dollars on contractors. Those contractors, in turn, need thousands of workers. They often turn to some of the poorest countries in the world, including Nepal, India, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Uganda.
But despite U.S. laws against trafficking, extensive regulations and the federal government’s
zero-tolerance pledges, thousands of people have been trafficked into labor by private contractors on U.S. military bases. Workers have been paid less than promised, charged recruiting fees that leave them deep in debt, and pressured to sign improper contracts and work
long hours.

Impact reached:

Stars and Stripes, the news organization for the U.S. military, reprinted the Washington Post
story. The Hill responded with an impassioned op-ed calling for changes. “Startling reports from the Washington Post, NBC News and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICRJ) last week paint a sordid picture of the reality of human trafficking carried out by some U.S. government contractors on American military bases abroad,” wrote
Nate King, director of U.S. congressional affairs for International Justice Mission, a global non- governmental organization that protects people in poverty from violence.
“This kind of investigative reporting is so vital. It sheds a light on unacceptable complicity in forced labor, which undermines other efforts of the U.S. government to address trafficking around the globe. Americans ought to be outraged that human trafficking continues to occur under the watch of the U.S. government in this way — and we can look to recent history for how the public might respond.” The Global Investigative Journalism Network has deemed this one of the top international investigations in 2022.
The Pentagon’s office for preventing trafficking (CTIP) is officially incorporating the NBC Nightly News video segment as part of its training for contracting officers, to prevent trafficking and stop new contracts going to those who have engaged in trafficking. And the GAO said the work by the journalists was responsible for the passage of Senate bill S.3470, the End Human Trafficking in Government Contracts Act of 2022; the months of questions by reporters led to the passage of the bill just as the stories were being published, according to the auditors.

Techniques/technologies used:

We built data to track companies we uncovered that had engaged in trafficking, including many that the Pentagon or other government agencies knew had substantiated cases of trafficking workers. We also built data sets to track the dozens of workers we had reached out to or interviewed. We used google sheets and excel for these tasks.
For tracking spending, we used python, excel and access. For tracking that government contracting officials had failed to flag companies it knew engaged in trafficking, we used access and excel.

Context about the project:

This project faced many hurdles: Government secrecy that shielded the names of those who have violated U.S. trafficking laws, the extreme reluctance of victims to come forward and the sheer geographic challenges that come with this global reporting effort. Though such information is supposed to be public, the Pentagon would not disclose the names
of the contractors with violations, despite multiple inquiries, including Freedom of Information Act requests. Through extensive reporting, including FOIA requests, court documents, and records complied other governments like those in India and the U.K., the journalists were able to identify close to 50 of the companies that have been Pentagon contractors with troubling records, trafficking thousands of workers.
One key was convincing insiders and whistleblowers to come forward. In the end, about a half dozen former government and company contracting officials helped with this reporting. Victims of trafficking were reluctant to come forward for various reasons. Often it was because they come from impoverished backgrounds and despite abuse and illegalities, they want to work. They are often fearful – with good reason — that if they go public, no other employer will want them. Many times, the pressure comes from family members who are relying on them to send money home. Then there are high-interest loans that the worker may have taken to pay a recruiting fee. While illegal, recruiters often charge fees equal to a year or two of their prospective salaries. If they lose work, they lose the ability to repay those loans, jeopardizing what meager property or savings held by the family at home.
The reporters worked carefully and respectfully in doing these interviews, with extensive conversations with dozens of workers and following protocols similar to those outlined by the The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma. In the end, close to 50 were willing to be either on the record or be on background, where their names were not revealed but their comments were on the record. For the NBC Nightly News segement, one worker agreed to appear in shadows,
but his voice was not altered. Their trafficking claims were verified by checking countless documents, photographs and other evidence. The sheer geographic challenges were immense. We interviewed one trafficked worker from his dirt floor home near Pokhara, Nepal. Another from a place in Uganda so rural it was off the grid. In Kuwait, our ARIJ reporters could not go near U.S. bases because of security. The obstacles were surmounted various ways, but took time, patience and logistical planning. Reporters would meet in neutral locations, careful that those speaking with us would not be seen by others going to meet us. Because of vast distances, some interviews were done via WhatsApp or FaceTime,
often involving arranging for someone to lend a phone that could shoot video, or for workers to
get to other villages with wifi or internet connections.

What can other journalists learn from this project?

The most important aspect is the power of collaboration between different newsrooms and entities around the world on producing such a big investigation. Journalists should always look for those collaborations which make the tasks within a complex investigation become easier, especially with on-ground interviews, understanding local context, translations, networks of sources, and much more.

Project links: