James Risen is considered a professional journalist. Not the kind often labeled a ‘journalist’ today, Risen predicated himself on breaking stories that mattered, regardless of who they exposed, what agenda they may have collided with, or who they rubbed the wrong way. As a long-time employee of the New York Times, this may seem like a contradiction to most reading in 2018.
According to Risen, it is a contradiction. While he famously endured litigation after litigation under both the Bush and Obama administrations, somewhat successfully winning the right not to give up his sources as he exposed warrantless wiretapping and other high-profile stories, Risen says the government was not his sole adversary. In an expose written for The Intercept, the journalist explains decisions made between the New York Times editorial staff and the government which belie the idea of the media as a ‘fourth estate’.
Whether they were delaying one of his stories or killing it outright, Risen often found that the image of the journalist, beholden to nothing but the truth and the protection of sources in order to disseminate it, was merely a mirage on the institutional level. While he continued to draw paychecks from the Times, and therefore must be taken in the context of a man who was not too outraged to leave, his insights from the inside are interesting, to say the least.
Risen documents his early days as a national security reporter, specifically covering the CIA. As the Cold War ended, he had access to agents who had been let go from the department, and explains how they often were unclear at what would be newsworthy to the average citizen or reporter. So he listened, eventually gleaning information that would allow him to break stories such as the exposure of little-known Iranian-Bosnian arms deals under the Clinton administration. He was also able to obtain documents the CIA had long maintained as lost or destroyed which shone a brighter light on the U.S. role in the Iranian coup of 1953.
The story of John Millis was one that opened Risen’s eyes to the murky, potentially lethal waters into which he was treading.
‘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. After he closed the door, he took out a classified report by the CIA’s inspector general… The report concluded that top CIA officials had impeded an internal investigation into evidence that former CIA Director John Deutch had mishandled large volumes of classified material, placing it on personal computers in his home.
The story was explosive, and it angered top CIA officials.
Several months later, Millis killed himself. His death shook me badly.’ (The Intercept)
Those familiar with the common fates of those considered dissidents of the Central Intelligence Agency understand that suicide does not always mean suicide. One must always consider the circumstances. For one, Millis had reportedly shot himself with a shotgun, which is near impossible and highly improbable. The CIA remained coy about the most basic facts of why Millis had been suspended and other easily answerable inquiries. Then, there’s what he knew.
‘As committee staff director, Mr. Millis had access to the U.S. intelligence community's most intimate secrets. He knew about all U.S. covert action operations, which require written presidential notifications.
He also was privy to the most sensitive information collected by CIA agents, electronic eavesdropping and photographic satellites.’ (Washington Times)
In retrospect, it’s hard not to connect Risen’s story, his assertion that Millis had allowed him to dictate such sensitive agency documents, and Millis’s ‘suicide’ months later. It’s clear that Risen was in on some really heavy stuff, and that the agency likely knew that he was a man on which eyes were to be kept.
In the wake of 9/11 and the onset of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Risen began to sense that national security was being used as a cover to quash stories that were not only newsworthy, but not truly threats to national security. And, importantly, Risen believes his editors were far too willing to go along with the government’s many requests in far too many instances.
‘In late 2002, for instance, I called the CIA for comment on a story about the existence of a secret CIA prison in Thailand that had just been created to house Al Qaeda detainees, including Abu Zubaydah. In response, Bush administration officials called the Times and got the paper to kill the story... I believed that the White House was just trying to cover up the fact that the CIA had begun to set up secret prisons.’
This sort of quashing, in addition to cutting or back page burying of stories about what the government knew and when they knew it became more common as the war in Iraq progressed. As it became clear that pre-war intelligence was faulty, and less clear precisely where that intelligence had come from, reports on these issues continued to be buried, cut, or denied. Risen puts much of the blame for this selective, government-dictated reporting on NYT editors, who he saw as derelict in their primary duties.
‘in late 2002 and early 2003, I was able to get enough material to start writing stories that revealed that intelligence analysts were skeptical of the Bush administration’s evidence for going to war, particularly the administration’s assertions that there were links between Saddam’s regime and Al Qaeda.
But after I filed the first story, it sat in the Times computer system for days, then weeks, untouched by editors. I asked several editors about the story’s status, but no one knew.
Finally, the story ran, but it was badly cut and buried deep inside the paper.’
Each time Risen wrote a similar story, he saw the same thing occur. It was one-sided coverage of the question over WMD’s existence in Iraq, and in retrospect Risen was on the factual side, while his editors, and the New York Times, were not. One can only conclude that government influence had a significant, if not complete, role in the unbalanced selection of storylines.
‘while they were burying my skeptical stories, the editors were not only giving banner headlines to stories asserting that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, they were also demanding that I help match stories from other publications about Iraq’s purported WMD programs.’
But Risen, in retrospect, saw these days as mere precursors of a greater crackdown on reporters and whistleblowers. Canned, delayed, and buried stories were just the beginning of what he saw as an assault on journalism. He cites ‘the Valerie Plame case’ as the turning point which would ratchet up the tactics of the administration to silence their critics in the name of national security.
‘In December 2003, the Justice Department appointed Patrick Fitzgerald, then the U.S. attorney in Chicago, to be a special counsel to investigate allegations that top Bush White House officials had illegally leaked Plame’s covert identity as a CIA officer. Critics claimed that the Bush White House had sold her out to the press as retribution against her Iraq war critic husband, former U.S. diplomat Joseph Wilson.’
The media, as Risen recounts, was in a frenzy to urge on Fitzgerald in finding the source of the leak, partially over their liberal-leaning resentment for the wars as a whole. According to Risen, they did not think of the greater consequences that such a push for government investigation would have on the freedoms of the press. They began to become compelled to testify in what seemed like a ball rolling toward the forced revealing of sources.
‘Fitzgerald… started subpoenaing reporters all over Washington and demanding they testify before a grand jury.
‘The Plame case eventually faded away, but it had set a dangerous precedent. Fitzgerald had successfully subpoenaed reporters and forced them to testify and in the process, had become the Justice Department’s biggest star. He had demolished the political, social, and legal constraints that previously made government officials reluctant to go after journalists and their sources.’
Eventually, Risen himself would become embroiled in this controversy when he discovered that the NSA was spying on domestic citizens.
‘Over the course of about 10 minutes, the source provided a detailed outline of the NSA’s massive post-9/11 domestic spying program, which I later learned was code-named Stellar Wind.
The source told me that the NSA had been wiretapping Americans without search warrants, without court approval. The NSA was also collecting the phone and email records of millions of Americans. The operation had been authorized by the president. The Bush administration was engaged in a massive domestic spying program that was probably illegal and unconstitutional, and only a handful of carefully selected people in the government knew about it.’
This was the most far-reaching, consequential case Risen had ever broken, and then-editor Bill Keller decided not to run it, with intense pressure from the government. But after the resolution of the Bush-Kerry election, Risen again began to work on getting the story being published. Again, national security took precedence.
‘The additional reporting and rewriting did not sway him. He accepted the Bush administration’s arguments that the piece would harm national security. He killed the story.’
Based on what we now know about the NSA’s domestic surveillance program, that it is not used purely to collect the data and correspondences of suspected terrorists, but all American citizens, the story needed to be broken. We should not have to have waited for Edward Snowden, a whistleblower and low-level NSA employee, to show the gall to inform the American public that few of their transmissions were truly private.
That was the New York Times’ job, and the repeated decision not to run the story is precisely why the mainstream media has lost the credibility that it once had. Were terrorists going to stop communicating or acting in ways that the government could track if they knew of the program? That is a very difficult case to make.
But, as would become common, the media catered to the wishes of the government. And, while we tend to associate the New York Times with a liberal agenda, the fact remains that the mainstream media lets out only what it is permitted to let out, by its sponsors in politics and the private sector, and by the intelligence community, often backed by non-partisan governmental motives. Risen’s insider account confirms that the mainstream system works the way we knew it does, inefficiently and partially.
In 2018, one must be aware that research – personal, informed research – and alternative forms of media that allow for it have far surpassed the traditional cable outlets and print papers in terms of informational utility. If one is outraged that the MSM and once-revered journalistic giants such as the New York Times have become secondary to serious truth-providing outlets, one can look at Risen’s account to see exactly why this is the case.