How to Interview a Global Villain

A journalist who spoke with bin Laden reflects on Sean Penn’s conversation with el Chapo.

"El Chapo" masks in Mexico City (Henry Romero / Reuters)

“The trust that El Chapo had extended to us was not to be fucked with.”

This is how Sean Penn justified the steps he took to get the interview with Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman that Rolling Stone published shortly after Mexico’s most infamous drug lord was arrested on Friday. “I take no pride in keeping secrets that may be perceived as protecting criminals,” the American actor wrote. And yet: “This will be the first interview El Chapo had ever granted outside an interrogation room, leaving me no precedent by which to measure the hazards.”

But there is precedent for interviewing dangerous subjects. Peter Bergen, who in 1997 scored Osama bin Laden’s first TV interview with the Western press, told me that such interviews inevitably involve trade-offs, and that there are no hard-and-fast rules. “They control the situation; you don’t,” Bergen said. “The fact is this is not like going to interview somebody who runs the Chemical Industries Association of North America.”
And there is debate about whether Chapo’s revelations were worth the steps Penn took to obtain them. In Penn’s telling, those steps included using burner phones and encrypted communications to evade Mexican and American authorities; emphasizing his willingness to “suspend judgment” about Chapo’s livelihood; making a stealth visit to Chapo’s heavily fortified jungle hideout; relinquishing control over the interview by submitting questions from the United States for a cameraman in Mexico to selectively ask the kingpin; and sending the entire article to Chapo for his approval before it ran (Rolling Stone claims the cartel leader didn’t ask for changes).

As for the revelations: Chapo discloses that his engineers learned how to build the elaborate tunnel for his second prison escape by traveling to Germany for training. He bluntly declares, “I supply more heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine and marijuana than anybody else in the world.” Readers discover that Mexican soldiers at a checkpoint let Penn’s convoy pass once they recognized Chapo’s son. We find out that Chapo doesn’t use drugs and refuses to take responsibility for fueling drug addiction, though he admits that “drugs destroy.” There are analytical contributions, too, such as Penn’s attempt to complicate the villainous portrait of Guzman by arguing that Americans, through their consumption of drugs and support for the U.S. government’s “war on drugs,” are complicit in Chapo’s dark arts.

Yet Penn’s article has also produced allegations of journalistic malpractice. Alfredo Corchado, the Mexico bureau chief for the Dallas Morning News, has argued that given Penn’s softball questions (“If you could change the world, would you?”) and acquiescence to Chapo’s conditions for the Q&A, the interview should be considered entertainment, not journalism. The interview, he said, insulted Mexican journalists who have lost and risked their lives to cover organized crime and government corruption.

Others have condemned the decision to grant Chapo blanket pre-approval of the text, questioned whether Penn did enough to protect his source (the preparations for the interview may have helped tip off the authorities to Guzman’s whereabouts), and criticized Penn’s portrayal of the Mexican crime boss as a surprisingly humble and chivalrous family man—a morally gray survivor and entrepreneur exploiting human failings that transcend any one person. Still others have blamed Rolling Stone’s staff. “If you’re an editor about to send a famous and sympathetic writer to interview one of the world’s most notorious villains,” wrote Kelly McBride at Poynter, “you’d likely remind him that his loyalty should be with his readers, not his subject.”

So how exactly should journalists approach interviews with the world’s most notorious villains? Should they conduct them at all? I posed those questions to Bergen. “There are all sorts of despicable people who journalists have done interviews with, and it’s been useful,” he responded. “Isn’t more information better than less information?”

“The idea that [Penn’s Chapo] interview should not have been done—I don’t really accept that at all,” he added.

At the time Bergen interviewed bin Laden, the al-Qaeda leader had declared jihad against U.S. military targets, and the U.S. State Department had accused him of being the world’s chief financier of Islamic extremist movements. But the scope of his war was not yet known.

Like Penn, Bergen and his CNN colleagues Peter Arnett and Peter Jouvenal had to clandestinely arrange the interview and abide by certain restrictions. In his book Holy War, Inc., Bergen told of bin Laden’s media advisor confiscating the team’s camera and sound equipment (the advisor offered his camera instead), and requiring CNN to submit its questions in advance (questions about bin Laden’s political views and calls for violence against Americans were permitted; questions about his family and finances weren’t).

The journalists also placed themselves at the mercy of bin Laden’s entourage as they made their way through the Afghan mountains to meet the terrorist leader. At the end of the interview, Bergen recounted in his book, he was reminded of the vulnerable situation he was in:

[T]he ‘media adviser’ was reluctant to give up the interview tapes. First, he wanted to erase some shots of bin Laden he considered unflattering. With several of bin Laden’s guards still present, there was no way to stop him. I watched as he proceeded to erase the offending images by taping over the interview tape inside the camera. Not content with this little display, he then started an argument … about giving us the tapes at all.

“We couldn’t be part of [the discussion about releasing the footage],” Bergen told me, “because we weren’t the people with all the guns.”

The advisor eventually handed over the tapes, and they proved newsworthy. In the segment, bin Laden said that while he was targeting American soldiers in his campaign to drive the U.S. military out of the Muslim world, he could “not guarantee” the safety of American civilians. The significance of one line would only become apparent years later. Asked about his future plans, bin Laden responded, “You’ll see them and hear about them in the media, God willing.”

Bergen did point out one key difference between Penn’s interview and his: When he spoke with bin Laden, the United States hadn’t yet indicted the al-Qaeda leader, whereas Chapo is facing murder and drug-trafficking charges in America. “It wasn’t very clear what [bin Laden’s] deal was,” Bergen explained, and the point of the interview was to provide clarity.

“That said, would we have done the interview if he’d been indicted? Yes. … I think our interview was very much in the public interest. It first of all drew attention to this person who no one had ever heard of. Secondarily, it explained what his particular set of gripes with the United States were.”

“To me, the Rolling Stone piece moved the story forward,” Bergen added, noting that Chapo’s statements about his role in the drug trade would likely “be of great interest” to U.S. prosecutors if the drug lord is extradited to the United States for trial.

Bergen applauded Rolling Stone for being transparent about the conditions Chapo set for the interview, though he added that he would not have proceeded with his bin Laden interview if bin Laden, like Chapo, had insisted on approving the produced TV segment before it aired.

Other restrictions bin Laden’s aides imposed, such as screening CNN’s questions to weed out non-political topics, did not undermine the fundamental purpose of the interview, he argued: “At the end of the day, we weren’t there to find out what he thought about what kind of tree he was. We were there to find out why he was declaring war on the United States.”

Bergen said that journalism is about finding people who “you think are interesting” and who could “change history.” El Chapo was interesting enough, and elusive enough, that two guys even made a documentary about their failed, two-year effort to secure an interview with him. Sean Penn found a way to get an audience with the world’s most powerful drug trafficker. Are we all better for it?