The Reporter Resists His Government

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Alex Menendez/AP Images
James Risen, Berkeley, California, November 2013

In early 2003, James Risen, an investigative reporter in the Washington bureau of The New York Times, prepared a story about a covert CIA effort to undermine Iran’s nuclear program. Before publishing it, he informed the CIA of his findings and asked for comment. On April 30, 2003, according to a subsequent Justice Department court filing, CIA Director George Tenet and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice met with Risen and Jill Abramson, then the Times’s Washington bureau chief. Tenet and Rice urged the Times to hold Risen’s story because, they said, it would “compromise national security” and endanger the life of a particular CIA recruit. (The agent is referred to in the Justice filing as “Human Asset No. 1.”) Eventually, the Times informed the CIA that it would not publish Risen’s story.1 Abramson said recently that she regrets the decision.

The following year, Risen and a colleague, Eric Lichtblau, learned of a National Security Agency surveillance program that collected details of Americans’ telephone and e-mail communications without reference to a search warrant. Some of Risen’s sources inside the NSA thought that the program was unconstitutional, because it violated the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition of unlawful search. Risen felt that he had come across “my biggest story of the post-9/11 age,” as he puts it in Pay Any Price, his revealing, diverse collection of investigations of greed, incompetence, and mendacity in the American national security state.

In October 2004, Risen and Lichtblau drafted their NSA story. They again informed the Bush administration of what they had discovered. The White House launched “an intense lobbying campaign” to persuade senior Times editors that the story “would severely damage national security,” Risen recalls. The decision about whether to publish fell to Bill Keller, then the Times’s executive editor. Risen, Lichtblau, and Rebecca Corbett, their editor, argued that the paper should go forward, but Keller ultimately decided against them. That left Risen, as he writes, “frustrated and deeply concerned.”

He then took a leave of absence from the newspaper to write a book. In the summer of 2005, he finished his manuscript. He included in it his reporting about the CIA’s Iran operation and, with Lichtblau’s consent, their discoveries about the NSA’s warrantless surveillance program. Risen found a willing publisher at Free Press. When he informed his editors at the Times about his book-publishing plans, he recalls, “They were furious.”

Rather than be scooped by their reporter and Free Press, the Times’s executives reconsidered their decision not to publish his story about the NSA’s warrantless surveillance. According to Risen, the deliberations culminated in an Oval Office meeting between President Bush and Arthur Sulzberger Jr., then and now the Times’s publisher. In December 2005 the Times printed Risen and Lichtblau’s account. It caused an immediate sensation and later won a Pulitzer Prize. Yet the Times did…


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