Interviewer: Terry Gross
Terry Gross: My guest, James Risen, is the New York Times reporter whose new book describes the National Security Agency's secret domestic eavesdropping program. It's a story he broke in the New York Times last month with Times reporter, Eric Lichtblau. We're going to talk about the impact this revelation has had and examine other secret programs Risen uncovered in his new book. It's called State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration. Let's start with the NSA story. In 2002, a few months after the 9/11 attacks, President Bush authorized the National Security Agency to monitor the international phone calls and emails of Americans linked to suspected terrorists without first getting warrants. The day after the story was published in the Times, President Bush admitted that he'd authorized the program and said that revealing the existence of this secret program damages our national security. The President continues to defend the program. Did you expect the President would confirm the existence of the secret surveillance program that you uncovered?
James Risen: No, actually. I was kind of surprised by that. The day our story ran in the New York Times -- the first day that the White House refused to say anything --I thought that was kind of going to be their strategy and then I was surprised that it was a Saturday morning when the President came out and kind of issued a statement confirming it. I guess they changed their public relations strategy overnight.
Gross: Why do you think he did confirm the program? Do you have any clue?
Risen: Well, I think they've decided. As you see this week they're rolling out a series of press events to defend the program, leading up to the President's visit to the NSA on Wednesday. I think they've decided to kind of aggressively support and defend his decision to authorize this program. I guess... You know, Karl Rove talked about this on Friday. I gather they've made a calculation that politically they can defend this and make the case that this is a necessary part of the war on terrorism. And so I think they're going to be more aggressively supporting it and defending it publicly.
Gross: I'd like to ask you to explain the technology that makes it possible for NSA to be doing the kind of surveillance you discovered it was doing.
Risen: I'm no technical expert. But my understanding from talking to people about this is that what they're doing is -- they've gotten access to the key major telecommuncations switches. I guess the easiest way to think of them is they're at the interface between the domestic telecommunications network and the international communications networks. As phone calls, cell phone calls, emails all get routed in and out of the US, a lot of them have to go through these switches. They're kind of like gateways in and out of the US. By getting kind of trap-door access to those switches through cooperation with some telecommunications companies, the NSA is basically able to get into the bloodstream of the American telecommunications network and able to eavesdrop on email and telephone calls as they are routed in and out of the country.
Gross: Now, the way I understand it, the NSA has not necessarily been listening to all the phone calls or reading all the emails it's monitoring. Part of what it's trying to do is just find patterns -- who's calling who, who's emailing who. Is that right?
Risen: Well, it does both. It eavesdrops on some individuals. And then our understanding of it is that there's a broader aspect to this where they're conducting what some people call "pattern analysis," looking at broader numbers of telecommunications to see when people are calling, how often they're getting called, what time of day they're getting called. And to try and develop some kind of trends that they can use in their investigations. But at the heart of the program, they are actually eavesdropping on individuals without search warrants. About 500 people at any one time inside the US. And another 5 to 7 thousand people overseas who are in communication with those people or who are involved with communications which are what they call "transit traffic," which is a kind of arcane term to describe the communications that are routed through the US telecommunications network but which really are like a phone call or email, say, going from Asia to Europe and just gets routed through the US telecommunications network. In the past, because those communications were inside the US, the NSA was not supposed to listen to those, at least not while it was being routed through the US.
Gross: The Bush administration has been bypassing the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Act which says that you need to get a special warrant from a special court to tap phones or conduct surveillance on email. The special court is support to respond immediately. Do you have any idea what the Bush administration's standards have been to authorize this surveillance?
Risen: Well, what they've done in this case is bypass the court and that's the crux of the controversy because that court was created by law in 1978 specifically to deal with the kind of eavesdropping that they want to do now and that the NSA is doing. To provide court approved search warrants for national security electronic surveillance inside the US against spies and terrorists. And the problem that they have in this case is that the Administration says, Well, we want to do so many of those and we want to do them so fast that the FISA court was ill-equipped to handle all of that. The critics of the Administration argue that there are a number of ways that FISA could have handled this and that there are also a number of ways the Bush administration could have gone to Congress or gone to the courts to seek approval for this. But they decided instead to do it on their own. The chief judge of the FISA court, who was a woman federal judge, had growing concerns about the program. One of the reasons that she appeared to be concerned and that there were growing concerns within the Justice Department at that time was the potential that the government was seeking search warrants for eavesdropping on people in other cases that were not covered by the secret NSA program, but using as justification and evidence to get those warrants information that had been gathered through this warrantless search. In other words, there was a growing concern that possibly illegally obtained evidence from this NSA operation was being used then in courts to get search warrants in other cases. And so that concern was growing in 2004. And that was one of the issues that led both to the concerns of the chief judge of the FISA court, who was only notified of the program and who was never asked to approve it, and to the Justice Department. And that's a concern that's still there today. After our story ran, one of the judges on the FISA court resigned because he'd never known about the program until our story ran. He's concerned about the possibility that search warrants had been issues based on potentially illegally obtained evidence.
Gross: Do you have any idea what standards the NSA has used to decide when it's appropriate for them to by pass the court and just directly conduct surveillance?
Risen: No. One of the things that they've done in this program is that they've allowed NSA to decide on its own who to listen to. The NSA doesn't even have to get approval for each specific eavesdropping operation from the Justice Department or the White House or anybody else. For the first couple of years the program was in existence, it's our understanding that there weren't even any kind of checklists approved by the Justice Department for use by the NSA in deciding who to listen to. There were a number of people in the government who were beginning to get deeply concerned that there were virtually no management or oversight controls over the program. So in 2004 the program was briefly suspended because of those concerns. And finally the Justice Department began to audit the program in 2004. And they created a checklist -- they gave a checklist to the NSA to decide how to determine probable cause when and if they wanted to eavesdrop on somebody. But that checklist was something that NSA itself was then able to conduct on its own and they didn't have to get any approvals. So the real question in the conduct of this operation is that there's been no oversight, or virtually no oversight either from within the Bush administration or from Congress or the courts.
Gross: After your book, State of War, was published, you reported that a top Justice Department official objected to parts of the program in 2004. At the time John Ashcroft who was then head of the Justice Department and was hospitalized for gall bladder surgery -- he was in intensive care which is why his top official was asked. His name is James Comey. What do you know about why James Comey was unwilling to give his approval to certify certain parts of the program. Do you know what parts they were?
Risen: No, we don't. We don't have a lot more detail about that other than the fact that Comey and Ashcroft raised concerns. The President has made the point publicly that he reauthorizes this program -- I think he said something like every 45 days. Part of the reauthorization, as I understand it, is that the Attorney General has to recertify it at roughly the same period that the President does. There was, for some reason, in 2004 a growing concern within the Justice Department about the lack of controls over the program even though the program had been in existence by that time for a couple of years. While Ashcroft was in the hospital, Comey was serving as Acting Attorney General. His normal job was Deputy Attorney General. It appears that the White House went to Comey for recertification of the program at the same time the President was reauthorizing it, and he apparently declined. Which led to an extraordinary meeting, I think, with Andy Card, the White House Chief of Staff, and perhaps Alberto Gonzales, the White House counsel, going to the hospital to see Ashcroft to try and get him to recertify it. It appears that eventually they got a recertification and the question is exactly what happened during that meeting and what was the level of concern from Ashcroft and Comey. And we don't really know the answer to that.
Gross: How much do you know about how many Americans have been monitored as part of this NSA program and who has been monitored?
Risen: What we've been told is that they have been eavesdropping without search warrants on approximately 500 people inside the US at any one time since early 2002 or late 2001. That number -- the people change over time. People rotate in and out who are being eavesdropped on. So we've been told that it's same to assume that the number of people who've actually been targeted under this program is in the thousands. Overseas, the program has monitored 5 to 7 thousand people at any one time. They've been listening both to telephone and email traffic.
Gross: The Justice Department has asked for search logs from Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, and America Online. Google has refused to hand those over. The Justice Department wants these as part of... to investigate online users of pornography. Did you see that case as being connected at all to the NSA investigation you've been conducting?
Risen: Yeah. I do. I think one of the real issues for the Bush administration, at least in its second term is the nature and extent of their use of national security arguments to engage in domestic intelligence operations inside the US. We've seen a number of stories on a number of different fronts, including Pentagon spying operations against antiwar protesters and other dissidents. I think one of the things we've really got to try to report on now is the extent to which there is a broader domestic intelligence operation that goes beyond the NSA than what we've heard about.
Gross: What has, for you, been the most surprising result of the investigation into the secret NSA program? For example, now the Senate Judiciary and Senate Intelligence committees are planning hearings on the surveillance. There are a couple of court test cases that are about to begin. So, what are, as far as you're concerned, the most surprising results?
Risen: Well, I think the biggest thing for me... Eric and I weren't sure anybody would really notice the story! at first... You never know when you write a story whether people will pay attention to it or not and whether it will have any impact or not. I guess I've just been kind of stunned by the impact of it overall. I wasn't sure what would happen. And it's interesting to me that a number of conservatives have been upset by what the Administration has been doing. I think this is one of the few stories, or few cases I think recently, where the criticism and the alignment of people on where they stand on this issue isn't quite so partisan as with a number of other issues. I guess that's slightly surprising too.
Gross: When asked if this surveillance program might be an impeachable offense -- whether the President's authorization of this program might be an impeachable offense, -- Al Gore said that it might be. Do you think it might be an impeachable offense?
Risen: I don't know. That's a political issue. An impeachment is a political process and it's not really a legal process. And I'm just a reporter so I don't get to vote on that one way or the other so it doesn't really matter what I think. It's interesting that this has stirred up so much emotion on both sides. I think it's interesting that the President this week is going to make such an aggressive defense of it. I think it's quite possible that, once the whole debate on this plays out, that the American people will decide that this is a good thing for the President to do and that he should keep on doing it. I just like to report on things and let others have the political say.
Gross: You mentioned how aggressive the Bush administration will be this week in supporting the program. There are high-placed people from the Bush administration who will be speaking about the program nearly every day this week. Have more people come forward from the NSA or from other sectors of the intelligence world since you and Eric Lichtblau broke this story to tell you more about what went on behind the scenes? In other words, are you getting more information as a result of having broken the story?
Risen: I don't want to get into anything about sources, but I can say that we're still reporting on the story and we're still writing more stories. We're able to find out new things.
Gross: One person has come forward -- Russell Tice -- to say that he was one of the sources for your story. And my understanding is that you've been unwilling to confirm or deny that. Why is that?
Risen: Well, I just have a policy that I'm not going to discuss anything about my sources.
Gross: Now, this person I mentioned, Russell Tice, might be prosecuted for leaking information. And the President says he'd like to find out who leaked the information and prosecute them. Are you worried about your sources being prosecuted for leaking? Risen: I think the one thing that I feel strongly about is that this is a classic case of whistleblowers who've come forward for the right reasons -- because they believe that something illegal and possibly unconstitutional was going on. Whether that is illegal or unconstitutional is for other people to decide besides me. But that was how they felt and they came forward in the best traditions, I think, of American democracy -- because they felt that the American people really had to know about this in order to have a debate and a public discussion about it. And so I think these people are patriots and I think that any attempt by the government to target them or to go after them would be tragic.
[Gross: reintroducing James Risen after a break: I asked him about the difficulty of naming sources when writing about intelligence issues, particularly when covering the ultrasecretive NSA.]
Risen: It's really a Catch-22. People will criticize you for using anonymous sources. But then if you name your sources, they could go to jail. And that leaves you with the alternative of not writing anything about these agencies or these operations So I think that really the only alternative is to grant anonymity to people and to do it in a way that... you've got to be careful about how you do it and the sources you use. I've learned over the years through hard experience, I think, how best to try to do that. It's not always easy. But I think it's absolutely essential or you can't write about these things.
Gross: You say in the book that many of your sources that you draw on in the book came to you or spoke to you because of their growing disillusionment. What can you tell us about what was disillusioning your sources with the way intelligence was run. These are sources both in the NSA and the CIA.
Risen: I think one of the things that struck me when I first started working on this book, not just in the intelligence community but throughout the Bush administration, that people I was meeting, a lot of them, many of them people of them who had recently left the Bush administration over the last year or two, you looked at them and they had a dazed look as if they'd just been in a car crash. Like they were trying to sort out what had happened. I got sense from a number of people who were just leaving the administration that they were really wondering themselves what went wrong. And I was thinking after a while that this must have been what it was like during the Vietnam war when a lot of people started leaving the Nixon and Johnson administrations during Vietnam. That's one of the parallels. Not that Iraq and Vietnam are similar but that the experience within the government for, say, mid-level professionals, I think in many ways is similar. They are still, today, after leaving government -- still trying to sort out exactly what had happened to them and what happened to the government. It's fascinating to see that because I think that as they look back, a number of these people feel like something went wrong and they're not quite sure what. That's what I was trying to sort out.
Gross: Did sources tell you that they ever felt pressured by the Bush administration to report selectively on the intelligence that they had, or to suppress intelligence that would contradict Bush administration positions?
Risen: Well, that's one of the big questions that everybody's been wondering about since the failure to find WMD. I think that what I concluded was that people felt a climate within the CIA -- particularly among the analysts and people dealing with Iraq WMD -- there was a climate created that you knew what the right answer was, you knew the answer people wanted to hear. Nobody ever wrote a memo saying, This is the answer. But you knew what the answer was. And if you came up with an intelligence report that said that somehow confirmed the existence of WMD, you knew that the report went right to the top. If you raised skepticism about any aspects of the intelligence, you were either ignored or shunted off to the side. One of the things that I tried to make clear in the book -- and I hope I have -- is that it's not clear anybody lied. I don't think the President ever lied the existence of WMD. I don't think George Tenet lied. I don't think anybody lied. I think that they believe there was WMD -- I know they believed that there was WMD. What the problem was, was different. What I think the problem was, was that a number of people inside the CIA -- a number of senior professionals -- assumed there was WMD but they also knew the intelligence proving that case was not very good. They knew that the CIA did not have strong intelligence to corroborate what the Bush administration was saying publicly. Even though they assumed that it was right. And the people who raised doubts about the quality of the intelligence -- not the existence of WMD but the quality of the underlying intelligence -- were either ignored or shunted to the side.
Gross: The White House asked the New York Times -- because this information was published in the New York Times before it was published in your book, just shortly before -- not to publish your article arguing that it could jeopardize continuing investigations and alert terrorists that they might be under scrutiny. You had gathered this information about a year before it was published in the Times. The Times held it for about a year. There have been a lot of questions about why the Times held it so long, why did they publish it when they did, were they afraid they were going to be scooped by their own reporter when your book was published. I know in the past you've been unwilling to discuss this. Any chance you're willing to talk about it today?
Risen: No -- I just think that when the New York Times published this, I think it was a great public service. It was something that has started a national debate on the substance of this issue. I just think that's the important point. People who criticize the Times forget that we're the ones who broke the story. And I didn't see anybody else breaking that story! So...
Gross: There are several other pretty controversial programs that you've uncovered here. What did you think was going to be the most controversial when you were on the verge of publishing the book?
Risen: Well, I guess the NSA operation I figured would be the most controversial. You know, there's a number of other things in there that are interesting. One of them relates. One of them relates to President Bush and whether or not he was briefed, formally and officially briefed by the CIA on the details of the agency's enhanced interrogation techniques that they use in their secret prisons around the world.
Gross: You suggest in your book that you think members of the Bush administration intentionally did not tell the President about interrogation techniques so the President would have deniability.
Risen: Yes. What I was told was that the CIA Inspector General's staff was told that the President was not formally briefed on the details of the interrogation techniques and that Vice President Cheney and Condoleezza Rice and a few other senior aides were briefed but there was a sense that you didn't want to go into the Oval Office and go into graphic detail about the specific techniques. I think there are people at the CIA who later regretted that they didn't look the President in the eye and go over these in detail.
Gross: Why do you think they regretted it?
Risen: Well, because now it's a big controversy over the use of harsh interrogation techniques and the torture debate and the debate over secret prisons. Although they did get the... The Administration approved these techniques. The question really is not over their approval, it's more a matter of did the President want some kind of deniability so he could go out and say, I never authorized torture. And I think one of the issues for the CIA -- the CIA was the only agency that actually got such high level approval for the actions it was taking. But the techniques that were used there were somehow... one of the things that I've been interested in understanding is how it began to use harsh interrogation techniques first against Al Qaeda captives in CIA custody, and then six months or a year later we end up having a scandal in a military-run facility in Iraq where there's questions about interrogation techniques. The question that's never adequately been answered is, did something migrate away from CIA to the military -- or how did that all happen, where suddenly for the first time in modern history the US military is being accused of such broad mistreatment of prisoners.
Gross: I want to ask you about another program that you write about in your book, State of War. And this relates to something in the news right now which is that Iran is continuing with its nuclear program in spite of protests from the international community. You wrote about a program called "Merlin." What was this program?
Risen: Back in 2000 -- six years ago -- the CIA arranged for a Russian defector to give nuclear blueprints to the Iranians. They were supposedly flawed blueprints. The idea behind the operation was to try to get the Iranians to build a nuclear weapon based on these flawed blueprints and it would be a dud. But the operation was considered not to have been handled well, and it's not clear whether actually the blue prints aided the Iranians rather than set them back. So there have been questions raised about how effective and how well-managed this was.
Gross: Because this is supposed to be blueprints with flaws to mislead them, but some of the information in them was real information. Tell the story about how the mistake was probably corrected [laughter] by mistake!
Risen: What I was told was that the Russian defector could tell immediately that there were flaws in the blue prints and that he was not supposed to know that these were flawed...
Gross: This is the Russian defector who was supposed to be leaving these plans for the Iranians to see...
Risen: ...Right. And so the question raised was, if he could see it and he even sent the Iranians a letter saying you'll see -- I forget the exact wording of the letter -- you'll see there are problems and you'll need to get more help, or something like that. So the question is, were the Iranians able to parse these designs and find the good stuff and get rid of the bad stuff. They have plenty of Russian and Chinese nuclear scientists who consult with them and who could have helped them with this. And even more important, AQ Khan and his network gave the Iranians nuclear blue prints on their own some time ago. This operation was probably irrelevant to the larger debate, but it showed -- what I thought it showed was -- it raised real questions about the CIA's handling of WMD intelligence and whether or not they really know what they're doing. Especially after Iraq, after we've seen how wrong they were about everything about Iraq's weapons programs.
Gross: Was this Merlin program controversial within the CIA?
Risen: Well, it was pretty secret so I don't think there was too much controversy. But there are people who've raised questions about it.
Gross: And you also tell the story of an email that inadvertently ended up exposing all of the CIA spies in Iran. Could you tell us that story?
Risen: Yes. That happened in 2004. There was some kind of covert communications procedures to communicate with a whole network of spies that the CIA had in Iran. A CIA officer communicating through this network supposedly with only one spy accidentally downloaded information that could help identify the entire network and downloaded it to this one agent. What I was told was that this did disrupt the entire network. The CIA now claims: No, no, we've done a big damage assessment and this didn't lead to arresting them all. They've said that since my book came out. But they don't deny that this huge mistake happened and that they've had to do one of the biggest damage assessments in their history to determine the status of their Iranian network. Clearly it put their entire spy network in Iran at great risk, at a minimum.
Gross: President Bush has said about your investigation into the NSA program, "My personal opinion is that it was a shameful act for someone to disclose this very important program in a time of war. The fact that we're discussing this program is helping the enemy." What would you say to President Bush about that?
Risen: Well, I would say that throughout American history we've had a debate over the balancing between national security and civil liberties. That debate has always ranged -- there's a spectrum of things between the erosion of privacy rights of American citizens vs. the need to secure the country. And that debate has gone back to the earliest days of the republic and it continues today. I think it's a debate we're going to continue to have. So I would say it's important for the public to be able to understand what this government is doing in order to have that debate.
Gross: What's it like for you now to have the country talking about your story and your book? to have the President criticizing it? to have your sources possibly facing indictment? You might be subpoenaed yourself. There's so much controversy swirling around you right now. I think a lot of reporters try to stay out of the story as much as possible, shine the light on the story and on the people they're writing about, but there's so much light shining on you right now!
Risen: I try not to think about it!
Gross: Is that hard?
Risen: [laughing] Until you just said it that way, I hadn't thought of it that way! No, I just try to keep doing stories.
Gross: Sure you must feel the heat!
Risen: Well, my job is to write newspaper stories so I'm going to try and just keep doing that.
The 2/9/06 Washington Post has an interesting and revealing article about the Administration's relationship with FISA and the difficulties the FISA court has had with Administration procedures.