For Firestone and Liberia, A Secret History Unearthed

Dear Readers,

Uncovering buried history is one of the great traditions of investigative journalism.

Today, with “Firestone and the Warlord,” ProPublica, in collaboration with PBS FRONTLINE, publishes the extraordinary, untold story of one chapter in Liberia’s civil war, one of the 20th century’s ugliest. The story explores the unexamined role of an iconic American company in the rise to power of Charles Taylor, a murderous politician hungry for power in one of Africa’s most volatile and vulnerable countries.

Firestone, by the early 1990s, had operated a giant rubber plantation in Liberia for more than 60 years, and in doing so had come to play a dominant role in the country’s economy and politics. Taylor, who would become one of the world’s most notorious war criminals, was at the time an ambitious rebel leader heading a ragtag assortment of fighters. He was looking to recruit soldiers and gain legitimacy.

Reporters T. Christian Miller and Jonathan Jones frame the events this way: Firestone needed Liberia and its rubber. Taylor needed Firestone for his rise to power. So when the war came, the killer and the corporation found a way to make peace.

The reporting involves years of research, scores of interviews with former Firestone executives, Liberian leaders, American diplomats, one of Taylor’s top advisors, and many everyday Liberians who suffered under Taylor’s ruthless hand. It involves secret court documents and the files of Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which sit mostly forgotten in a warehouse in Georgia. The reporting also includes an examination of once classified U.S. State Department communications, as well as the handwritten diary of a Firestone manager who spent years on the plantation and who, at least for a while, tried to stand up to Taylor.

That painstaking reporting effort has made it possible to intimately recreate a fascinating and provocative narrative. It brings to life both the violence on the ground in Liberia and the anguished deliberations taking place at the highest levels of Firestone’s company command. And it unpacks, with power and precision, the nuanced moral calculus Firestone ultimately employed in agreeing to strike a deal with Taylor.

We believe the importance of fairly and fearlessly telling that story is considerable.

The history it lays bare reverberates into the present. With the world watching, Liberia’s civic institutions have buckled in the face of the crisis over Ebola. This story traces a critical passage in the wars that have left Liberia so wounded and imperiled.

The story also provides an overdue accounting. The Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission concluded that Firestone had aided Taylor, and it listed the company as having been guilty of economic crimes against the country. But Firestone faced no sanctions, and its officials chose not to tell their story to the commission’s investigators. As a result, many Liberians have ached for a rigorous scrutinizing of the company’s decisions and actions.

Finally, however distinctive the story of Firestone and Taylor is, it pivots on questions that many corporations that operate globally are facing today: What is the cost of doing business in conflict zones? What protections do companies owe their workers? Where and when should conscience outweigh the bottom line?

Marty Yonas, a Firestone executive based in Akron, Ohio, participated in many of the company’s meetings concerning what to do in Liberia.

“I was in the meetings, but mostly sat there with my mouth open,” Yonas told us. “I remember thinking they didn’t teach us these lessons in business school.”

Our joint effort with Frontline includes a riveting film that will premier on Nov. 18, the first 90-minute broadcast ProPublica has done with Frontline. The story published on our website is the longest we’ve produced, and we have tried to be creative in how our readers can experience it. We’ve made it possible for you to bookmark your place in the story, allowing you to take it in as you like and return to it with ease. If you like serial narratives, you can sign up to receive an introduction to each chapter of the story in individual emails. For those who enjoy the ebook experience, the story is available in that format, too. And we partnered with award-winning photographer Ashley Gilbertson to further enhance the story with multimedia.

We’ve done all this because we believe the history unearthed here is a vital piece of ever more rare investigative reporting. That history has surprises and dilemmas, heartbreak and hope. And in all that, we believe it holds lessons for the future.

As ever, we encourage our readers to both spread the word widely and offer us candid feedback — about the reading experience or where next to take our reporting.

Steve Engelberg and Robin Fields