James Risen covers national security for The New York Times.
He was a member of the team that won the Pulitzer Prize for explanatory reporting in 2002 for coverage of September 11 and terrorism, and he is the coauthor of Wrath of Angels and The Main Enemy: The Inside Story of the CIA's Final Showdown with the KGB.
He lives outside Washington, D.C., with his wife and three sons.
Interview - James Risen
Risen is a national security reporter at The New York Times and the author of State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration. Risen wrote, with Eric Lichtblau, the Times stories about the NSA wiretapping program and the government tracking of financial transactions via the international SWIFT banking network. This is an edited transcript of an interview conducted March 28, 2006.
... How did you get into national security reporting?
I was at the Los Angeles Times, and I was covering economics in the Washington bureau, and I was getting tired of covering economics, and told the editors I wanted to do something else. ... They said: "Well, we've got this job where you can cover the State Department half-time and the CIA half-time. The State Department part of it would be Latin America and policy." I had no interest in that, but I thought the CIA sounded interesting, so I said, "I'll do it." And then I basically never wrote about Mexico; I just wrote about the CIA. ...
The CIA is not like covering other beats. You don't get a press credential. They almost never have press conferences. They don't put out a lot of press announcements or press statements or press releases. And they only occasionally have congressional hearings about it. It's ... a job that requires you to go out and find jobs, rather than on a normal beat, [where] there's a lot of news and public events that you have to cover. ...
How long did it take you to think you were really starting to develop sources? And when did you think you really were getting a better idea of how the agency worked?
Took a couple of years, really. It was in the mid-'90s when I started, and it was after the Aldrich Ames case, which had --
The spy case.
Yeah, that had happened in '94, before I started covering it. ... I think there was a sense that, hey, the Berlin Wall fell, the Soviet Union collapsed, and the only thing anybody remembers is Aldrich Ames.
A spy in our midst.
Correct. ... And then the budget cuts, and people were losing their jobs. I think there was a general sense that "We want to tell our story." So that was a good environment for a reporter to come into.
“The best way that we can promote ourselves as a country in the Middle East and around the world is to show that we are a real democracy, and a real democracy has a vigorous and aggressive press.”
In my own experience, it was also kind of a disdain toward the leadership of the CIA, that [it] had become political as opposed to professional.
Yeah, that certainly happened under [former Director of Central Intelligence (DCI)] John Deutsch. ... He came in in '95, '96, right when I was starting to cover it. ... It led to both sides to want to get their stories out. ...
And [former DCI George] Tenet was relatively open.
Yeah. Tenet, when he became director, he thought that it was important to have good press relations, although he did not talk to the press directly very often. ...
The New York Times recently has articulated a policy that it will do everything to minimize the number of anonymous sources used in the paper. But you've written that the best stories, the most important and sensitive ones, rely on the anonymous sources. So do you think the Times is being realistic?
It's an objective to strive for, to limit anonymous sources. I agree with that as an objective. If we could get these stories in the paper with all on-the-record attribution, that would be wonderful. That's the ideal. But unfortunately it's not the real world, and I think what their policy is saying [is], "We will strive for that, but we will also recognize what the real world is."
The Times also says that it will make every effort to describe the motivation of the anonymous source, the reason why they want anonymity, but you don't do that in your articles.
Not usually. ... I don't feel too strongly about it either way. I just think sometimes it adds words to a story that are unnecessary, when you try to describe in some benign way without identifying the person what their motivation was, which is generally what they're doing now. ...
In the story that's currently on the table, your book State of War, the story of NSA [National Security Agency] eavesdropping, it's all anonymous sources. ...
There are some sources who are named. There's a few.
... How do you judge whether these sources are telling the truth? And how do we as readers evaluate the information?
That's the challenge that you face as a reporter all the time. As you know, when you're covering national security issues, everything that you're writing about, anything of importance, is classified, particularly in the Bush administration, where they have classified virtually everything related to Iraq or the war on terrorism or domestic counterterrorism cases. There's really a cult of secrecy that's developed.
Anyone who tries to tell the truth and to get the story out can get in trouble if they're identified, and yet there is a public need to get those stories out. I think that is where the public misunderstands the role of anonymous sources. ... There's a sense that, oh, these are made-up people or that the reporter is fabricating or that these are people with an ax to grind, when in fact it's quite the opposite: It's people who are really determined patriots, I believe, to get the truth out with reporters who they trust, in a way that they believe will help the country. ...
That may be a leap of faith, but in this environment, where there is so much of a culture of secrecy in Washington today, I think as a reader, you have to take that leap. And the only way over time to determine that this source, meaning me, is credible is if the stories hold up. You have to determine what the track record of the reporter is. ...
... Doesn't it allow somebody to, if you will, spin you, to manipulate you?
... Every time you do a story, you're in danger of being spun, or you are spun. A lot of times, as a reporter, you know you're getting spun. Every day you go to the White House press briefing, you're getting spun. Every story contains some spin. ...
The people and the sources of information that Eric Lichtblau and I got for our story, were people who in some cases were tortured by their knowledge of this information. They felt compelled to tell this information, to make the public aware of it because they believed that it was either unconstitutional or illegal, and I think that they were classic whistle-blowers.
... There are other ways ... for that person to get that information out. ... But talking to someone who's unauthorized is a crime and should not happen. It damages the national security of the United States.
That's my point. ... If you're able to put a classification stamp on anything, ... [and that] makes it illegal to tell the public that the government is potentially conducting illegal operations, then you're into the theater of the absurd. ...
But they say -- and apparently some members of Congress agree -- that they were briefed, and this was a very valuable program.
Yeah, I know what their arguments are. But I also think that there was a First Amendment in the Bill of Rights long before there was a CIA or an NSA, before there was classification. No matter what they say, there was no real alternative that people within the government who had concerns about this program could get that aired, because this was so highly compartmented.
And yet you took this upon yourself to take this information to the newspaper, as I understand it, and try to publish it. And the newspaper didn't publish it right away.
I'm not going to get into the details of the deliberations within the paper. In the end, the paper published the story, and I think The New York Times has performed a great public service by doing that. I think that's what's led to the public debate that we've had, that we need to have, in this country.
And when you hear the president say that what this has done is damaged his terrorist-tracking program ... and it's a tragedy that this has been made public?
The idea that terrorists don't know that the U.S. eavesdrops on their conversations is just not true. The only real secret that we revealed was that the government was not obeying the law, and that they were going around FISA [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act]. The only secret we revealed was that this was being done without court-ordered search warrants. ...
You say that the government was going around FISA. ...
Right. There was a legal procedure set in place, that's been in place for 30 years, for them to conduct this kind of surveillance. ...
They say that, in fact, FISA wouldn't cover this kind of surveillance, this vacuum-cleaner operation; that it's too broad; that it's based on new technologies that are in existence that weren't in existence 30 years ago. So it's outside the scope of previous legislation.
Right. They have never publicly described the full scope of this operation. What I think it suggests to a number of people in Congress and elsewhere is that they are doing something much broader than what they have acknowledged publicly.
You think there's more out there?
It's possible, and that may be why they have not been willing to describe the operation publicly in any detail.
Well, my understanding is they have now told Congress more about the program.
Some, but not in any great detail. They've provided some basic briefing to some lawmakers, but I think there are some doubts within Congress, questions among both Republicans and Democrats, why the administration has resisted congressional oversight so far. ...
When you see something like in the Valerie Plame case, you see something like [former editor] Norman Pearlstine at Time magazine giving up files of a reporter, Mr. [Matt] Cooper's files, what's your reaction?
I don't know all the details of what happened there, so I can't really comment on that. I think that the whole Plame case is kind of the opposite of the NSA story. In that case, ... the press [was] put in the odd position of protecting senior government officials from an independent prosecutor who was looking into whether the administration had targeted a critic of the war. In our case, as I said, this is a classic whistleblowing case, where you had people telling the public about an operation by the government that they believe was potentially illegal. ...
Are you saying that you should be able to publish whatever you think is newsworthy that you can find out about secret operations of the U.S. government?
No, I think there are occasions when, if someone's life is in danger, that you as a reporter have a moral obligation not to print that kind of information. But I think that it's up to the news organizations and reporters to make the decision in the end, because it's not the government's role to edit newspapers.
There's a leak investigation going on. They're collecting the names of reporters who have talked to officials who had access to this program. There's apparently over a score of agents working out of the Washington field office. Is it drying up your sources?
Well, I'd rather not get into that in any detail. I can just say that [I'm] continuing to report and work and to try and advance our knowledge of what the government is doing. ...
But you must be getting phone calls, or maybe people are worried about talking on the phone. You must get communications from people saying, "They came and talked to me." ... Do you worry about them?
Well, sure. I worry about the fate of our democracy when you can have a major public debate about an issue like this at the same time that the government is trying to crack down on the press. I think that it would be a tragedy for our democracy if we lose the ability in the press to have vigorous investigative reporting. ...
Porter Goss, [former] head of the CIA, says he wants to see a reporter standing in the well of the Court. ...
I think that's really unfortunate. I would hope that he would have other things to do. We've got a war going on in Iraq. There's a war on terrorism. I found it odd that he seems fixated on what the press in the United States is doing, and that raises questions in my mind about his priorities.
But don't you see their perspective? They can't keep anything secret, and if they see that this program is vital to the national security, to their effort to stop another attack here in the United States --
That's just a convenient thing for them to say, politically. The best way that we can promote ourselves as a country in the Middle East and around the world is to show that we are a real democracy, and a real democracy has a vigorous and aggressive press. It's what we are trying to showcase in Iraq, is the idea of a democracy. If we, at the same time, are trying to crush free press in our own country, what does that say about the model we are trying to present in Iraq or elsewhere?
They'd say that's all great rhetoric, but what we're really trying to do is preserve the idea that there are secrets vital to the national security of the United States that need to be kept secret, and if there are people out there willing to publish those secrets, it's going to endanger the United States.
Democracy is messy, and it's not something that can be engineered from [CIA headquarters in] Langley, Va. ... And if they want the same thing in Iraq or in Palestine or in Lebanon, they're not going to always get the outcome that they want.
You can't try and control the American press. At a time when there has been one party controlling Congress, the White House and, to a great degree, the courts, basically the only oversight in Washington today is the press. What they have tried to do here is to try and shut down the only real oversight left in Washington.
You mean Congress isn't doing its job.
The congressional oversight has been very weak and, I would argue, docile under the Republicans while Bush has been president. ... When we wrote the NSA story, it wasn't our judgment that this should be not happening. ... The only thing we're saying is this is something the American people should know about; they then can decide whether it's something they want to continue or not. That's our role. Our role is not to say to the American government, "Don't do this." Our role is, "This is happening, you decide."
But if the government's saying: "You expose it, and it's less effective. You tell the American public, but you also tell Al Qaeda or you tell the other -- "
You can always say that about almost anything. You can say that about publishing the weather, that if you publish the weather in Washington that you might help Al Qaeda on their next attack on the Capitol Building or the White House, or if you publish the weather report for New York, that would help them in their attack on World Trade Center.
You can always raise the issue of national security. There's always a spectrum between the rights of the American people to know something and national security. It's something that we'll always debate. In the end, ... it's the right of the editors and the publishers, under the First Amendment, to make the final decision. And until the Bill of Rights is changed, that will be what will happen.
Pat Buchanan, for instance, would say [of the press], "That's an unelected [group], many with advanced degrees, who are ideologically liberal, taking it upon themselves to make decisions that they weren't elected to make."
No, it's part of democracy. We are part of a democracy. If you want a centralized police state where the only people who ever make any decisions are in the White House, that would be a very different country than what we have today.
You've compared the war on terror to the Cold War. What do you mean?
In hindsight now, the last four or five years since 9/11 is, to me, very similar to the early Cold War period, the period, say, in the late '40s, early '50s, when there was a growing sense of a Soviet threat to the United States, but it was not widely understood. ...
Because it was abstract, it was very easy for some people in government to exaggerate the nature of the threat. I was thinking of [Sen.] Joe McCarthy. It was easy for people in the government to kind of hyperventilate about what we were facing as a country and what we as a country needed to do in terms of crack[ing] down on civil liberties in order to deal with the threat. I think we're in a very similar position today, where you have a threat that is still to most people abstract. Terrorism seems infinitely abstract. ...
Even after 9/11?
Yes. Because 9/11 happened once, we can now imagine almost anything happening. As a country and as a government, it's very easy to exaggerate the potential threat, because there is this reality that we've had. There was a reality about the Soviet Union, too. ...
What I tried to struggle with in writing this story on the NSA was how do we, as a country, really face up to the bounds between what is a realistic fight against terrorism versus the cost of that fight in terms of giving up our civil liberties.
Are we destroying the village in order to save it?
But they would say, in response, there hasn't been an attack in part because we have been successful, whether it is invading Afghanistan, fighting in Iraq or doing our terrorist-tracking program with eavesdropping.
Right. It reminds me of a joke where a guy puts up a sign in his backyard that said, "No elephants allowed." And his neighbor says, "Why do you have that sign up there?" And he says, "Well, you haven't seen any elephants, have you?"
How do you determine that the actions we've taken have stopped another terrorist attack? It's impossible to disprove or prove. I think the real question is, is there really much of a domestic terrorist threat, or was 9/11 a fluke?
What do you mean, a fluke?
Well, did they get lucky? Did Al Qaeda get really, really lucky once with bringing in operatives from overseas? If you look at where terrorism flourishes, it's usually an indigenous symptom of the political problems in that country rather than something that's exported to another country. We don't have a major domestic problem in our Arab-American community or in any other community that would be sympathetic to Al Qaeda, so there is no indigenous base from which Al Qaeda could operate.
Is that what your sources are telling you?
Yes. A lot of people in the intelligence community believe that.
But they're afraid to say that, or they can't say it.
I think they're reluctant to say it because it can always be proven wrong. Tomorrow something might happen. It's possible there will be another 9/11, and then you'll look like an idiot for saying it.
You'll lose your job; you'll be pilloried.
Right. You can have a terrorist attack once every five years, once every 10 years, and still not really have a major terrorist problem in your country. It sounds cold to say it that way, but that's kind of the truth. ...
President Eisenhower talked about the military-industrial complex; we now have the homeland security-industrial complex -- hundreds of billions of dollars being spent and thrown at the issue of domestic counterterrorism. When there's that much money being spent on something, ... nobody wants to hear that maybe there's no threat or maybe it's being exaggerated. ...
And without anonymous sources, without confidential sources, you're saying in this atmosphere that perspective would not be heard at all.
Right. Yeah, I think that's true. ... I have to say, there's not that many people who think that way or even talk about it, because so many other jobs depend on the existence of a threat. I mean, we have a new National Counterterrorism Center [NCTC]. If there's no domestic threat, what are they doing? ...
When I raise that question, what I hear in return is, "Who are you, a reporter, a journalist, to raise that kind of question?" Al Qaeda wants to get a bomb; they want to get biological material; they want to get radioactive material or make a dirty bomb.
Right. But I think that's the job of a reporter to be the little boy who says the emperor has no clothes. The job of a reporter is to be the curmudgeon who raises questions that nobody else wants to raise, and that's what the best reporters try to do. ...
And do you accept the consequences for saying the emperor has no clothes and refusing to answer questions about how you know this or why you think this?
Yeah. I think that's one of the things that comes with the territory, unfortunately. ... When I've been to Israel, the one thing that I've always found really interesting is that when there's a suicide bombing in a restaurant in Jerusalem, first thing they do is go in and clean it up and then reopen the next morning. By the next day, there's no signs of blood, and the glass is swept up, and life goes on. I think that we have allowed ourselves as a country to get so wrapped up in terrorism as an existential, horrible threat that we could never possibly live with that we're willing to sell our civil liberties to avoid that. And I think that's a historic mistake.
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