Lynzy Billing won this year’s Michael Kelly Award for “The Night Raids.” Given annually by The Atlantic, the Michael Kelly Award honors journalists whose work exemplifies “the fearless pursuit and expression of truth,” qualities that defined Michael Kelly’s own life and career. Kelly was the first journalist killed while covering the Iraq War, in 2003. He served as editor of The Atlantic and National Journal when both magazines were publications of Atlantic Media, chaired by David G. Bradley. Bradley created the award in his honor.
In “The Night Raids,” Billing, a freelance journalist, returned to rural Afghanistan to investigate the murders of her mother and sister in a night raid nearly 30 years earlier. Her journey is transformed when she discovers CIA-backed night raids killing hundreds of civilians, with no one being held to account. Billing documented in real time what the United States was doing on the ground in rural pockets of Afghanistan, in places few reporters, if any, had visited. She meticulously counted the dead, cross-checking her findings with witnesses, local hospitals and a forensic pathologist she recruited to help her. Her reporting focused on one of four CIA-backed Zero Units, known as the 02, over a four-year period.
The survivors of the raids, the witnesses, the family members of those killed, the village elders, the local doctors — all took risks to speak with Billing and share evidence with her. They often didn’t know why they were targeted and whether the Zero Units would return. Billing also spent six months working to persuade Afghan commandos and American special operations forces soldiers to share their perspectives. Her tally of the dead — at least 452 civilians killed during 107 raids — is almost certainly an undercount. The resulting work is a singular feat, a deeply intimate tour through what the U.S. wrought during its 20-year war in Afghanistan.
The Leahy Law bars the U.S. military from providing training and equipment to foreign security forces that commit “gross violations of internationally recognized human rights.” Former Sen. Patrick Leahy called for the law to be applied to all military forces that work with U.S. government agencies, including the CIA, and said an amendment to the law is in the works.
The judges describe Billing’s reporting as courageous, determined and unfaltering in its search for the truth. Read more about the Michael Kelly Award here.