How the NY Times and the U.S. Government Worked Together to Suppress James Risen’s Post-9/11 Reporting
We continue our interview with former New York Times reporter James Risen, who left the paper in August to join The Intercept as senior national security correspondent. This week, he published a 15,000-word story headlined The Biggest Secret: My Life as a New York Times Reporter in the Shadow of the War on Terror.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report, as we continue with Part 2 of our interview with the Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter James Risen, who left The New York Times in August to join The Intercept as senior national security correspondent, and, this week, published a 15,000-word story headlined “The Biggest Secret: My Life as a New York Times Reporter in the Shadow of the War on Terror.”
In the story, Jim Risen gives a personal account of his struggles to publish significant stories involving national security in the post-9/11 period and how both the government and the top Times editors suppressed his reporting on stories, including the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretapping program, for which he ultimately would win the New York Times a Pulitzer Prize in 2006. He describes how his story would have come out right before the 2004 presidential election of President Bush over John Kerry, potentially changing the outcome of that election. But under government pressure, the Times caved, refused to publish the story for more than a year, until Jim Risen was publishing a book that would have the revelations in it.
In this new piece for The Intercept, James Risen also describes meetings between top Times editors and officials at the CIA and the White House. Risen was not only pursued by the Bush administration, but by the Obama administration, as well, Eric Holder, attorney general, as part of a six-year leak investigation into his book State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration. His refusal to name a source would take him to the Supreme Court. He almost wound up in jail, until the Obama administration blinked. His answer to that saga was to write another book, Pay Any Price: Greed, Power, and Endless War.
So, Jim Risen, in this second part of our conversation—at the end of Part 1, you took us to the brink, to the Obama administration blinking.
JAMES RISEN: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: Not—and explain what they decided in 2015. I mean, this is—I want to stress, I mean, this is after pursuing you for years. You were pursued by the Bush administration, as well. But all through this time, you’re still reporting on these administrations for _The New York Times.
JAMES RISEN: Yeah, that was—that was very odd, because sometimes I would have to call the FBI or the Justice Department or the CIA for comment about stories, while I was under subpoena, while they were trying to put me in jail. And it was very weird, because I had to have this like dual personality, of, one, trying to continue to report, while you’re also the subject of this massive investigation. And it was very odd. It was very difficult for me to focus on continuing to report, because of—because of all that going on. And sometimes it felt like I was—I had two different lives. And so, that was weird.
But I think the thing that I never—you know, a lot of people in the press have kind of given Obama a pass on the way he dealt with press freedom issues. And I think that’s a big mistake. I think Obama was every bit as anti-press as Bush was. And I think there was something deeply ingrained in the way he viewed the press that allowed him to justify the way he was letting the Justice Department go after whistleblowers and reporters. And I don’t think it was—you know, a lot of reporters at the time tried to write stories that, “Oh, this is just, you know, a continuation of old stories that the Bush administration had started looking into, or that, you know, the Obama people are being forced to do this because of right-wing pressure or whatever.” I just think that that’s an excuse. They actively pursued these cases they had. They developed a very hardcore approach to the press, and they used the Justice Department as a weapon against the press.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I mean, the Obama administration pursued more whistleblowers than all previous administrations combined.
JAMES RISEN: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: And I want to now go to the former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling, serving a three-and-a-half-year sentence for leaking classified information to you, the New York Times, to you, James Risen, about a failed U.S. effort to undermine Iran’s nuclear program, the piece you described earlier in your first part of the interview. You later exposed how the risky operation could have actually aided the Iranian nuclear program. In 2015, Jeffrey Sterling was convicted of nine felony counts, including espionage. His case was the subject of the documentary short The Invisible Man. This is a clip.
JEFFREY STERLING: They already had the machine geared up against me. The moment that they felt there was a leak, every finger pointed to Jeffrey Sterling. If the word “retaliation” is not thought of when anyone looks at the experience that I’ve had with the agency, then I just think you’re not looking.
AMY GOODMAN: So that’s Jeffrey Sterling, a former CIA officer, who is African-American, serving a three-and-a-half-year sentence for leaking classified information to you, though you would not reveal your source. Talk about the significance of what happened to Jeffrey Sterling.
JAMES RISEN: Well, I can’t discuss who—you know, anything about who might have been my source or not. I can’t discuss my sources or anything about that matter, because it’s still something that I just refuse to discuss, anything about anyone who might or might not have ever been a source of mine in this case.
AMY GOODMAN: But in this case of just the way you have covered whistleblowers and what happened to Jeffrey Sterling as part of the Obama administration’s pursuit of whistleblowers, can you comment?
JAMES RISEN: Yeah, I think—I think, as I said in my piece, I think it was very shameful what’s happened in this case and in all the other cases where they’ve turned leak investigations into massive witch hunts. And I describe in the story how, you know, before the Valerie Plame case, there really was no—you know, the government didn’t do this kind of aggressive pursuit of leaks, that they allowed leaks to leak. You know, leak investigations basically didn’t go anywhere before the Plame case in 2004, and that it really was Patrick Fitzgerald and his hardheaded approach to the—subpoenaing reporters in the Valerie Plame case that I think had the unintended consequence of leading to many more leak investigations and to the subpoenaing of reporters and to the targeting of people throughout the government. So, I think that had a—and then, after the Plame case, the Obama administration came in and took a zero-tolerance approach to all leaks and made it, instead of something that was a backwater thing—something put on the back burner of the Justice Department, as it had been for years, suddenly they made leak prosecutions and leak investigations a top priority.
AMY GOODMAN: Jim Risen, the issue of who gets prosecuted, who gets jailed and who ultimately gets celebrated and gets off the hook, you write about this in your piece for The Intercept, “The Biggest Secret.” And you talk about a story that really shaped your reporting. This is before the September 11, 2001, attacks. You write, “[O]ne incident left me questioning whether I should continue as a national security reporter. In 2000, John Millis, a former CIA officer who had become staff director of the House Intelligence Committee, summoned me to his small office on Capitol Hill.” Talk about—take it from there. Take it from after he closed the door.
JAMES RISEN: Sure. John Millis opened—he took out a classified document, which was an inspector general’s report from the CIA on how John Deutch, who had been the CIA director, had mishandled classified information on his computer and how the investigation into that had been mishandled by top senior CIA officials, and that nothing had been done, basically, about Deutch. And it was a very devastating IG report, which had been—never been made public before. And Millis read me the whole story of—the whole report. And I went back over it whenever I needed to, so I could write it verbatim, write it down exactly, what was in the report. And I wrote a story about that report, which was very explosive at the time, because it raised questions about the way that this investigation had been handled inside the CIA and how basically nothing had been done to Deutch and how George Tenet and other people at the CIA had kind of, you know, put this whole thing on the back burner.
And Millis, a few months later, committed suicide. And I was—I went to his funeral, which was attended by hundreds of CIA people. And I felt—I wasn’t sure whether my—you know, the story I had done and the leak from him had anything to do with his committing suicide, but I felt like I was in a very weird, dangerous world that I didn’t quite understand. And he—for this piece that I just wrote, I talked to his widow. And she agreed that it was OK to say, finally, that—tell this story about him, and also she said that she doesn’t believe his suicide had anything to do with that leak or that story. But it was a real strange, strange interlude in my career. You know, as you may remember, after that, Deutch—you know, I think the investigation after that into Deutch’s handling of classified information suddenly got reignited, after my story. And finally, I think, as I recall, President Clinton gave him a pardon on the way out of office.
AMY GOODMAN: So you have both John Deutch and you have David Petraeus.
JAMES RISEN: Yeah. Yeah, Petraeus was—as you remember, he was CIA director under—for Obama and was—came under investigation for, you know, his mishandling of classified information, in a very convoluted story. And he just got a slap on the wrist in the end, didn’t go—didn’t have to go to jail. And it’s become clear that top officials, if you’re powerful enough and wealthy enough, and if you’re in a—well-enough connected, you know, leak investigations will not ruin your life, and you won’t face jail time. But if you’re lower-level officials throughout the government, you know, they can—they will go after low-level people who are not powerful.
AMY GOODMAN: So, Jim, you have the whistleblowers, and you have the reporters. And I wanted to go back to your story about Michael Hayden trying to suppress the story, the former head of the CIA. Before that, he led the NSA, the National Security Agency. He was speaking in 2014 to 60 Minutes’ Leslie Stahl and said that he didn’t think that you, James Risen, should be forced to divulge your source.
MICHAEL HAYDEN: I’m conflicted. I know the damage that is done. And I do. But I also know the free press necessity in a free society. And it actually might be that I think, no, he’s wrong, that was a mistake, that was a terrible thing to do, America will suffer because of that story. But then I have to think about: So, how do I redress that? And if the method of redressing that actually harms the broad freedom of the press, that’s still wrong. The government needs to be strong enough to keep me safe, but I don’t want it so strong that it threatens my liberties.
AMY GOODMAN: So that’s Michael Hayden. Your thoughts, Jim, as he was the one who brought down the hammer on your story, and now he’s saying you shouldn’t have to reveal your source?
JAMES RISEN: Yeah, I mean, I remember when I—when he said that, I thought that was a good—I’m glad he had seemed to have had a change of heart about the press. And I know he is now a pretty big critic of Trump. And so, it’s interesting. You know, people can change. They can change their minds, which is good. And I’m—that makes me more hopeful, I guess. It’s possible—you know, I don’t know whether he always felt that way about, you know, sending reporters to jail or not, but it’s good that he felt that way at the time.
AMY GOODMAN: And I want to stay back in that period of 2000 and go to the story, that you write about here, of Wen Ho Lee. Now, if people were wondering what the CIA and the FBI were doing before 9/11, let’s talk about the story of this Chinese-American scientist at Los Alamos, Wen Ho Lee, a story that you extensively covered.
JAMES RISEN: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: Explain what happened and what you learned from this story.
JAMES RISEN: Well, we—I was working on a story. It was basically about the Clinton administration and whether or not they were being too soft on China on—and it led into a story about Chinese espionage. And it kind of—in other words, I kind of came at this story indirectly, first looking at Clinton administration policies towards China on technical issues, and then the way they were handling espionage. And then, specifically, we began to hear that they were—had been soft on this specific espionage case that involved someone at Los Alamos, and eventually wrote a story about this purported espionage case at Los Alamos and involving a Chinese-American scientist as the main suspect at the time.
And looking back, I realize that the way we—I wrote that story and wrote the following stories, I wasn’t skeptical enough of the way the government—of what the government was saying or doing in the case and its handling of the case. And I really believe that we should have been more skeptical. And it was a very difficult learning experience for me. And I think I’ve learned from the mistakes that I made in that case.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to play an excerpt from my interview in 2005 with Bill Richardson, then the Democratic governor of New Mexico, former ambassador to the United Nations and former secretary of energy. As energy secretary, Richardson fired Wen Ho Lee, who was under investigation for espionage. Lee was ultimately cleared of those charges.
AMY GOODMAN: Governor Richardson, this isn’t only a case of freedom of the press and journalists protecting their sources, it is also a case of the destruction of the reputation of a man, Wen Ho Lee, who served almost a year in prison, who, a federal judge has said you, last month, were the probable source of the leaks. What do you say to that federal judge? And you say you stand behind everything you did in this case. What do you stand by?
GOV. BILL RICHARDSON: Well, I stand by that I wasn’t. And secondly, this was a man that was convicted on several counts of tampering with classified information. So—
AMY GOODMAN: But the minorest of counts. I mean, what he was originally—
GOV. BILL RICHARDSON: Well, no, it was not minor. This is where you’re wrong. It was not minor. There were very sensitive nuclear secrets that possibly were compromised and were improperly taken from his computer. Now, the judgment of the judge, I believe, is speculative. But I stand behind the very strong actions that I took to protect our nuclear secrets.
AMY GOODMAN: So, you say that the federal judge is wrong in saying that you’re the probable source of the leaks?
GOV. BILL RICHARDSON: Absolutely. He’s totally wrong.
AMY GOODMAN: I mean, in the case of Wen Ho Lee, though, originally, they said he could be a reason for the possible—well, like President Bush used in the argument for the Iraq War: He could be the source of a nuclear explosion, a bombing of the United States. And ultimately, when the judge freed Wen Ho Lee, he said he had been egregiously misled by government officials about what Wen Ho Lee was responsible for. And he was irate. He was enraged—the judge, I mean.
GOV. BILL RICHARDSON: Well, that’s his opinion. I believe that we acted properly in safeguarding our nuclear secrets. He was convicted on several counts. There were some mistakes in that case. It involved the entire federal government. And I stand behind everything that I did.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s former New Mexico Governor Richardson, who fired Wen Ho Lee, who was part of—it was not only the government, but also, I guess, your reporting in The New York Times, that led to this kind of witch hunt against Wen Ho Lee. I mean, he would be followed by FBI agents when he rock-climbed. They would be hanging from rocks nearby, because they just were following him. They destroyed, ultimately, his life. And in the end, he was not charged with any of the original charges, simply mishandling government information.
JAMES RISEN: Mm-hmm, right. Yeah, I know. It was a—as I said, I think the criticism of the stories that I did is valid. And it was a—as I said, it was a real learning experience. And I think it helped me become more skeptical of the government and, in a way, helped me avoid some of the problems on the pre-war intel on Iraq. I think the fact that I had gone through that experience and had become more skeptical of the government helped me become more skeptical of the government just before the war in Iraq.
AMY GOODMAN: And then, of course, you had the war in Iraq, and you were then asking serious questions. Your pieces weren’t making it to the front page of The New York Times in the way Michael Gordon and Judith Miller’s pieces alleging weapons of mass destruction were. Would you say that The New York Times was really campaigning for war on its news pages?
JAMES RISEN: Well, you know, it felt like—at the time, it felt like they didn’t want the stories that I was writing. It was—they didn’t want to hear, or they didn’t really—I wrote a series of stories that were skeptical about the pre-war intelligence, and they would either get cut or buried or, you know, held for long periods of time. And it was very frustrating. And that was, you know, going on in late 2002 and early 2003. And that, for me, was like the prelude to what happened on the later stories, on the CIA-Iran and then the NSA. So, I had this whole period where I was very frustrated, that ultimately led—you know, that frustration ultimately led to what I did with my book and the NSA story. So, it was all part of a continuous period for me of deep frustration.
AMY GOODMAN: So, as we wrap up, your reflections on the role of the press, and particularly your paper, that is so critical—your former paper, The New York Times—in holding those in power accountable, in being not a part of the state, but—not a party to the parties, but apart from them?
JAMES RISEN: Yeah, I think—as I said in my piece, I think there’s some mixed results from all these battles in the post-9/11 age. I think the press, in general, including The New York Times and The Washington Post and a lot of other major news organizations, hasn’t really learned the lessons of the pre-war WMD debacle in the press. I think we are still hyping terrorist threats and hyping WMD threats, in some cases. And I think that leads—that has a major political impact, and it makes it very difficult for anyone in Congress or the White House or any political leader to roll back some of the most draconian laws and policies that have been put in place since 9/11, including the domestic spying programs.
On the other hand, at The New York Times, I think the fight over the NSA story really helped usher in a change in the way that they deal with the government. The paper is now much more aggressive on national security reporting and much less willing than ever—than it was before the NSA story, to agree to hold or kill stories at the government’s request. You know, they require a much higher bar. You know, they still negotiate on stories, when the government wants to negotiate, but I think they’re much more willing to say no to the government today. And I think, you know, the experience on the NSA story had—was a big factor in changing that, the way they think about that.
AMY GOODMAN: And, Jim, one of the things you write about is the fact that you found out, through the case against you, through discovery, that there was, to say the least, a major FBI file on you. Can you talk about what you learned?
JAMES RISEN: Yeah, I found—my lawyers filed a FOIA, you know, Freedom of Information Act, request with several agencies. And they wouldn’t give me any information about the current case, but they were—to my great surprise, they—we started getting these old files on old leak investigations that they had done of my stories, earlier stories. And I was—it was amazing to see all these old leak investigations that I never knew had taken place. And the reason I never knew about them is because they dropped them and they never pursued them. And one of the documents showed—you know, had the—said it was—the FBI was recommending that it be closed and shut down, because they hadn’t, you know, really found anything. And I think there was a—as I said before, this earlier period, where no one really wanted to go to the mats—go to the mat on leak investigations. They just—everyone knew that there was this informal understanding between the press and the government. And they just would go through the motions of leak investigations. And it’s only been in the last few years where that’s changed, and that’s—it’s made Washington a much more difficult place to do aggressive reporting.
AMY GOODMAN: Were they surveilling you? Were they following you, Jim Risen?
JAMES RISEN: Not as far as I know. Not physical surveillance all the time, as far as I know. But I do—there was—I describe a very strange incident that’s happened recently, actually, in the last couple years, where I was—the FBI set up what I’ve been—what’s been described to me as an ambush of what they thought was going to be a meeting between me and a source. And that meeting didn’t happen, so the ambush didn’t take place. But I had been given evidence that they were thinking about pursuing that, in a way to try to find out—find a source of mine. And so, that was very disconcerting to find out that.
AMY GOODMAN: And finally, the FISA Reauthorization Act, that they have punted to January 19th, the significance of this?
JAMES RISEN: Well, you know, after our NSA story in late 2005, Congress began to finally grapple with how to deal with the NSA domestic spying program. And in 2008, they passed what they called the FISA Reauthorization Act—or FISA Amendments Act, I mean. And that basically gave Bush, unfortunately, most of what—it made legal most of what he had been doing under the domestic spying program. And that FISA Amendments Act then was still in place—has been reauthorized, I think, a couple times and has—then, when Edward Snowden came out with his documents, there were some tweaks to that, limiting certain things, but it’s basically still the FISAAmendments Act of 2008, is still generally the law. And so, I think they’re just reauthorizing that.
For a while, there were some Republicans, over the last few years, who were libertarian, who were opposed to domestic spying, but there’s been very little constituency, unfortunately, in the United States for civil liberties. And it’s very easy politically to demagogue on terrorist threats, and it makes it very difficult for politicians to fight back and actually reduce the power of the government.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, James Risen, I want to thank you so much for spending this time with us. James Risen, The Intercept's senior national security correspondent, best-selling author, former New York Times reporter. His new piece for The Interceptis titled “The Biggest Secret: My Life as a New York Times Reporter in the Shadow of the War on Terror.” We'll link to it at democracynow.org, as well as Part 1 of our hour conversation with the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist James Risen. This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks for joining us.