By Trevor Timm
For a man who could be forced into jail by the US government, possibly within “a few weeks”, after becoming the only journalist to be subpoenaed by both the Bush and Obama administrations, James Risen sure is busy.
In the past year alone, the New York Times investigative reporter whooriginally blew the lid on NSA wiretapping has interviewed with Edward Snowden, reported on multiple NSA revelations with Laura Poitras, anduncovered the incredible story of a Blackwater executive who threatened to kill a US state department employee who was investigating corruption – along with the government cover-up that followed. All while keeping mum as The Most Transparent Administration in American HistoryTM attempted to back him into a legal corner for doing his job as a reporter: protecting his sources.
“Maybe the Obama administration, at some point, is going to begin to back off, you would hope,” Risen told me on Monday afternoon. Until then, he’s speaking out upon the release of a new book, Pay Any Price: Greed, Power and Endless War, that takes us from the rise of the second Bush administration’s “homeland security-industrial complex” to an Obama administration that, in 2014, is more secret than ever, facing down yet another war in Iraq that could last years.
It’s the recurring theme of Risen’s book: secrecy corrupts, and absolute secrecy is destructive to democracy. And as the blockbuster, 9,000-word story by CJ Chivers published in today’s Times shows in such chilling detail, some things never change.
“Isis is a symptom of the disfunction we created in Iraq,” Risen told me. “Isis is a serious group that we should be concerned about, but it’s not something – at least from the intelligence so far – that is any imminent threat to the US”. Risen was referring to the many tame reports from American intelligence agencies that belie the drumbeat to war frantically erupting from Capitol Hill and cable news.
“After 13 years,” Risen said, “we still see that exaggerated fear-mongering. … It can be kind of depressing to see exaggerations on television or in the media about how dangerous things are. And the politicians are stoking this, going on TV and saying ‘We’re all going to die.’”
Following the hysterical comments from Congress and CNN, you’d think the decade-long debacle in Iraq and Afghanistan never happened.
“No one seems to remember,” he continued. “This is the longest continuous period of war in American history. At some point, people should begin to think: what are the consequences of that?”
We won’t know anytime soon. The Isis war will last years, according to virtually every current and former Obama administration official andhonest Iraqi politicians. Ex-Pentagon chief Leon Panetta, bloodthirsty as always, suggested the other day that the Forever War – or whatever you want to call it – could last more than a generation. The government’s legal rationale for it all, of course, remains secret.
Which is part of the reason we need whistleblowers. The most compelling chapter in Pay Any Price is the last one – the story of Diane Roark, an unsung hero of the long NSA reveal who tried, desperately but still in the shadows, to stop Bush’s warrantless wiretapping program way back in the mid-2000s.
Roark blew the whistle the right way – or at least the “right” way according to some of Snowden’s critics. “She never leaked to the press, she tried to go through the system, she found out early on that the NSA was involved in what she thought was an illegal, unconstitutional domestic spying program,” Risen told me. “Ultimately, the government raided her house and subjected her to persecution. It’s a real classic story of the difficulties in whistleblowing and going through the system.”
“What she went through explains why Snowden couldn’t try to work through the system – how difficult it is, how it’s virtually impossible.”
This week’s episode of 60 Minutes recounted how the Times held, at the behest of the government, Risen and Eric Lichtblau’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 2005 story that exposed Bush’s illegal NSA spying – and then killed another one of Risen’s stories altogether. The Times’s Jill Abramsonsaid in the segment that she regretted not running – at the behest of Condoleeza Rice – Risen’s investigation of CIA involvement in Iran’s nuclear program. It eventually ended up in his last book, and it’s the chapter (read it here) that might end with a reporter behind bars.
Risen, who admitted that he almost left the Times during the period his stories were being held back, said to me he “really appreciated” that someone – anyone – from the Times during that period had finally, publicly, expressed sincere regret:
One of the things the government has said in their briefs over the years is that, you know, they’ve pointed to the fact that the New York Times didn’t run the story as a reason for why I was being reckless, and one of the reasons they justified coming after me on this.
Dean Baquet, the Times editor who succeeded Abramson and reportedly killed a similar story at the Los Angeles Times in 2006, made similar comments recently, after describing the repeated dire warnings he’s received over the years from government officials trying to censor stories that virtually never pan out. “I am much, much, much more skeptical of the government’s entreaties not to publish today than I was ever before,” he told NPR. It’s about time the Times editors, former and current, stand up for their own – and others who are so relentlessly exposing government secrets. Hopefully, it’s not too late.
Continuing to publish is Risen’s only weapon in halting the Obama administration’s crackdown on sources and the press. “The one thing the government will respect is if we keep fighting, keep investigating the government, and not give up or become less aggressive in the kind of reporting we do. That’s the one answer we can have.”
“That,” he said, “is why I wrote this book. This book is my answer to the government coming after me.”