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Fresh data on dark money

Data journalism is crucial to the Center as we seek to put unarguable fact and depth of background into our work.

News applications developer Chris Zubak-Skees is something of a star-cum-quiet achiever in this area, constantly noodling with existing and prospective datasets and thinking of ways to display data that add value to our journalism and contribute to the core mission of shedding light on money in politics.

Anyone concerned about the flow of untraceable money into the U.S. political process will benefit greatly from the latest remarkable tool that Chris created, which we released last week. Users of “The Nonprofit Network” tool can trace grants made to “dark money” groups, organizations that participate in elections, but are not required to reveal the sources of their funding.

Creation of the tool has already generated stories of its own. And other organizations working in the area of promoting transparency have reached out to Chris and the team with rave reviews like these:

“Great job, we are working on building something like that as well. You beat us to it” and “This new research tool is excellent! Thank you for developing this resource … this is precisely the tool I needed to run additional queries on groups for which I’d hit a dead end.” and “The tool you developed is fantastic! It’s going to make researching organizations much easier. I’ve already discovered things I didn’t know.”

Dirty bomb risks

National security reporter Patrick Malone and managing editor R. Jeffrey Smith send a shiver of concern down anyone’s spine with a piece — co-published with our home town friends at the Washington Post and with the Texas Tribune — on the ease of assembling a dirty bomb.

It’s part of a long-standing project led by Jeff and with his team on nuclear proliferation and analysis of the ways in which fissile material is stored across the United States. Their work makes grim reading if you thought those issues were dealt with with after the Cold War.

The piece spread rapidly across the net this week with citations in more than 23 U.S publications online.

Jeff elaborates: “It explains how a secret group in three states (actually a bunch of GAO auditors) was able to purchase the radioactive ingredients of a dirty bomb without difficulty despite regulations meant to prevent such illicit sales. While the GAO published a poorly-written and highly-vague report about it last month, Patrick’s wonderful reporting teased out key details, including the location where the regulatory controls fell apart (Dallas, Texas), and the type of radioactive materials that were involved. It can probably be termed a worrisome success for the federal auditors who conceived of the sting and carried it out, since it highlighted a gap in federal oversight that needs to be closed quickly.”

Also on Jeff’s team Lauren Chadwick published a strong account of how Afghanistan’s persistent use of child soldiers has been ignored by the Obama administration so it can keep aid money flowing there, despite a U.S. law that bars foreign aid for countries that employ child soldiers. It also ran in Foreign Policy magazine.

Recognition for our work

Encore kudos to Talia Buford and Kristen Lombardi, and environment editor Jim Morris, for their series “Environmental Justice Denied,” which received two Salute to Excellence awards last weekend from the National Association of Black Journalists; NABJ was meeting here in Washington with the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. Talia, Kristen, Susan Ferriss and Ben Wieder also put on a panel at the convention — “The Data Have a Familiar Face” — about how to create compelling narratives out of deep data research.

What we’re reading and thinking about

I’m just about to finish a remarkable take on the Holocaust by Yale historian Timothy Snyder. His latest book “Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning” is a forensic analysis of the way conditions in eastern Europe became ripe for the Holocaust and what lessons they have for today.

It’s something I drew on recently in a piece for The New European, a “pop up” newspaper which emerged on the pro-European side after the recent Brexit vote. Snyder, a long time collaborator with the late Tony Judt, offers a chilling view of the risks of the European Union being undermined by right wing forces and the wedges pushed into it by the tactics of Russian president Vladimir Putin and his tactics of “hybrid war.” Snyder, writing a year or more before Brexit, says: “The EU not only embodies a tradition of learning from the Second World War, it also supports sensible climate policies and bolsters the sovereignty of small states. Its collapse would thus weaken the structures that separate the Europeans of today from a history of mass killing.”

I welcome feedback on this note. Thank you.

Peter Bale

CEO, The Center for Public Integrity @peterbale

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Peter Bale was the Center for Public Integrity's CEO from 2015 to 2016.