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Field Notes From
Weapons of Mass Destruction



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On Assignment
Arrows
View Field Notes
From Author
Lewis M. Simons



On Assignment

View Field Notes
From Photographer
Lynn Johnson



In most cases these accounts are edited versions of a spoken interview. They have not been researched and may differ from the printed article.

Photographs by deKun Photography (top), and Brian Strauss

 

On Assignment On Assignment On Assignment
Weapons of Mass Destruction

Field Notes From Photographer
Lynn Johnson
Best Worst Quirkiest

Being on the road with Lew Simons was a real pleasure. He's a fine journalist. We shared the assignment in the best sense of the word, traveling together in Kazakhstan, Russia, and the U.S. This was a very complex and emotionally charged story. It reinforced the importance of working shoulder to shoulder with a writer. It was wonderful to be able to talk about some of the larger issues and not feel alone when the situation got dark and depressing. A number of the people we worked with were ill and suffering. Much of the information was very technical, and we had lots of access problems. We had started our coverage long before September 11, but that day took the wind out of everyone's sails. It helped to have another professional as a companion.



Some Americans innocently believe that ours is an all-powerful and right country. It was hard to see that spirit eroded after September 11 as people began to realize that what they believe is just not true. I grew up during the Cold War when it was very clear who the good guys and bad guys were. But during my travels I learned that Americans are also the bad guys. I heard it mostly outside this country, particularly in European nations where the perspective is more global. In the U.S., voices of concern and dissent are gradually being raised. For instance, dozens and dozens of the people who once worked at Dugway Proving Ground are now ill or dying. One woman who is an advocate for them told me how government representatives had threatened her so that she would drop her advocacy role. So any innocence about our government was tempered by those revelations. I saw that "God Bless America" spirit across the land, but I had to question everything. The simplicity of loving my country unconditionally was just not an option.



Once in a while, I got this feeling that I was stuck in a bad James Bond movie. There was a lot of secrecy around a cache of WMD survival equipment that the federal government was deploying to a warehouse outside Salt Lake City. I found out about it, so the Justice Department gave me permission to take photographs, and I just walked right in. When FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, discovered I was there, all permission evaporated—it seemed to me, just because the other agency had granted approval. It was like some kind of power struggle. FEMA made four or five phone calls to stop me from going to the warehouse. Then later, they made more calls to figure out who gave me permission in the first place. In any other situation it would have been simple miscommunication, but some of the government people were so hyper-vigilant. Still, there were a lot of them who understood that Americans want to know what the government is doing to protect them. But their hands were tied by institutional paranoia. The whole thing was as frustrating as it was weird.





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