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The Biggest Secret: James Risen on Life as a NY Times Reporter in the Shadow of the War on Terror

StoryJanuary 05, 2018
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We spend the hour 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.” The explosive piece describes his struggles to publish major national security stories in the post-9/11 period and how both the government and his own editors at The New York Times suppressed his reporting, including reports on the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretapping program, for which he would later win the Pulitzer Prize. Risen describes meetings between key Times editors and top officials at the CIA and the White House. His refusal to name a source would take him to the Supreme Court, and he almost wound up in jail, until the Obama administration blinked.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Today we spend the hour with the veteran New York Times investigative 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.”

In the story, 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 his top editors at the Times suppressed his reporting on stories, including the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretapping program, for which he would ultimately win the Pulitzer Prize in 2006. Risen 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 New York Times refused to publish the story for more than a year, until Risen was publishing a book that would have had the revelations in it first.

In his 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 pursued by both the Bush and then the Obama administrations 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. Now, in one of his first pieces for The Intercept, he describes “The Biggest Secret: My Life as a New York Times Reporter in the Shadow of the War on Terror.”

Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Jim Risen. It’s great to have you with us.

JAMES RISEN: Thanks for having me. I appreciate it.

AMY GOODMAN: So, the story of what happened with your warrantless wiretapping story, the story of the wiretapping of Americans throughout the country, more than a decade before Ed Snowden revealed so much—can you go back in time and tell us what you found before the election, the second election of President Bush? We may not have read it in The New York Times at the time, but you had written it.

JAMES RISEN: Yeah. Well, it’s in the spring of 2004. I was meeting with a source, who—I was talking to this source, and in the process of talking, the source said, “There’s something that I know that I think is the biggest secret in the government, but I’m too frightened to tell you about it right now.” And it obviously took me aback, and I kind of tried to convince the source to talk more about it, but I couldn’t. And I just decided to try to keep meeting with this source over the next few months. And finally, several months later, as I was leaving a meeting with this source, I just turned to the source, and I said, “You’ve got to tell me now what it is that you’re talking about.” And finally, the source just kind of started talking about what he—what the source knew, and eventually, you know, in the course of about 10 or 15 minutes, told me the outlines of the NSA’s domestic spying program, that had begun under the Bush administration, both the warrantless wiretapping and the broader effort to gather email and phone records of Americans. And it was the outlines of this massive program that we later learned was codenamed Stellar Wind.

And I then found other people who could confirm this story, and also found that a reporter sitting next to me in the Washington bureau of The New York Times, Eric Lichtblau, was also hearing similar things, and so we started working together. And we had a story, a draft of a story, by that fall of 2004. And I decided to just go through the front door and call Michael Hayden, the director of the NSA. And I called the press person at the NSA and kind of bluffed my way and said, “I need to talk to Hayden right away.” And to my surprise, the bluff worked, and he got on the phone. And I started reading him the top of the draft of the story that Eric and I had written, and he just let out this very audible gasp and said, “Well, whatever we’re doing is legal and effective and operationally, you know, legitimate,” or something. And then he got off the phone.

And that—I think pretty soon after that, he called the Washington bureau chief of The New York Times, Phil Taubman, and that began a very long—that was kind of the beginning of the negotiations between The New York Times and the government over whether to publish the story. And we had meetings—started meetings in the fall, before the election, had a meeting with the acting CIA director, John McLaughlin, and his chief of staff and me and Phil Taubman, who was the Washington bureau chief, at the Old Executive Office Building, where they were trying to convince us not to run the story, although they kept saying not—where they kept refusing to admit that the story was true. They just kept saying, “Hypothetically, if this story—if something like this was going on, it would be too important for the government for you to—a newspaper, to report on it.”

AMY GOODMAN: Jim, before you continue—


AMY GOODMAN: —just explain more fully what exactly the U.S. was doing, this Stellar Wind program—


AMY GOODMAN: —how exactly the U.S. was spying on Americans and what it means, the warrantless wiretapping story.

JAMES RISEN: Well, there were a couple components of it. There were several components of it. There was—they had—what we later learned, they had grabbed—they were—the NSA, which was supposed to spy on foreigners overseas, had been turned inward on the United States by the Bush administration, and so they were spying on Americans when they were only supposed to spy on foreigners. And they were getting—they were listening in to the phone conversations of Americans’ international phone calls with foreigners, without search warrants, without any warrants from the secret FISA Court, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Court. And they were also gathering the phone records, logs and email addresses and messages of Americans throughout the country.

And so, basically, this was the—what I was told about was the outlines of what we now know as all of the domestic spying that has been going on since 9/11. It’s the same program that Edward Snowden later leaked documents about. He provided greater, you know, detail and showed how it had expanded beyond what it started out as by the end of the Bush administration.

AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, this is right before the election.


AMY GOODMAN: And this issue of invasion of privacy, of wiretapping Americans, of reading their emails—


AMY GOODMAN: —of listening in on conversations, you know, hits people across the political spectrum—


AMY GOODMAN: —and could have been pivotal in this Kerry-Bush presidential election.

JAMES RISEN: Yeah. Yeah, I’ve always wondered what it would have—what the impact would have been, if we had written the story before the election. You know, obviously, I don’t know.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, you wrote it before the election.

JAMES RISEN: It’s possible it could have had a fairly significant impact. But what happened instead was, you know, we wrote the story, we had a draft, and then we had meetings with the editors. Eric and I and our editor, Rebecca Corbett, met—went to New York to meet with Bill Keller and Jill Abramson. And Phil Taubman, who was the bureau chief, went up, as well. And Keller decided not to run it before the election. And we had—you know, I describe the meeting, that meeting, in my piece. And it was a very tense, tense meeting, where we had some tense exchanges.

AMY GOODMAN: Go into it.

JAMES RISEN: And then, afterwards, after the election, Eric and I convinced the editors to let us try again and try to get it into the paper again. And in December of 2004, we, you know, had rewritten it and re-reported the story. And they killed it again. And so—

AMY GOODMAN: On what grounds?

JAMES RISEN: Well, the same grounds, that the Bush administration argued that it was too valuable for the counterterrorism programs in the United States, that it was the most—their argument was it was the crown jewel of counterterrorism programs, it was the most important thing that the U.S. was doing against al-Qaeda, and that if we revealed it, we would be responsible for hurting America’s national security. And so, that was the basic argument. And the editors agreed with that at the time. And—

AMY GOODMAN: And your arguments?

JAMES RISEN: My argument was that we had sources saying that it might be illegal or unconstitutional, and that it clearly was—they were clearly going around the system that had been put in place by Congress 30 years earlier. You know, in 1978, Congress passed the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which set in place a legal structure for the surveillance of Americans and others in the United States for purposes of national security. And what it requires, they set up a secret court called the FISA Court. And when the government wants to do the kind of spying that they were doing in this case, they’re supposed to go to that secret court and get a search warrant. And what we found was that they weren’t doing that. They had decided to go around the FISA Court, ignore the FISA Court, and just start spying, on a massive scale, without telling anybody. And it was—you know, a lot of people who knew about it thought it was illegal.

And, you know, our argument, I think, was, terrorists know that the United States listens to their—tries to listen to their conversations. That wasn’t the big secret. The big secret was that the United States government was ignoring its own laws. And so, I thought that was the reason to publish the story, then and later. But the national security argument from the Bush administration won out in those debates with the editors.

AMY GOODMAN: And what did The New York Times get in exchange for suppressing the story on behalf of President Bush, a man who might not have been president if you had actually published the story before?

JAMES RISEN: They didn’t get anything. You know, we—I guess the only thing they got was they angered me. And I decided—after they had decided to kill it a second time, I took a book leave, and I decided to put the story in a book, because I thought that was the only way I could get the story out. And I felt—there had been a whole bunch of other stories that they had killed or held over the previous few years that I kind of detail in this piece. And so, this, to me, was like the final straw, and I wasn’t willing to do this anymore. And I felt like if I didn’t start, you know—if I didn’t do something, that I wouldn’t be able to respect myself anymore. I didn’t feel like I could put—you know, go along with these efforts to kill or suppress stories anymore.

And so, I put this and another story, on a failed CIA operation in Iran, both in my book. And after I wrote the book and had the manuscript ready to go and edited, I told the editors at The New York Times that it was—the stories were going to be in my book and that they should publish them. And I told them that like in the late summer or early fall of 2005, when my—and my book was scheduled to come out in January 2006. So I gave them, I think, quite a bit of time, advance warning, to publish the stories. And so, that—then, when I told them that the stories were going to be in my book, they were very angry at me. They were furious. And, you know, they thought I was being insubordinate and that I didn’t—they didn’t think I had the right to do it. And so, it began a very lengthy series of very tense meetings between me and the editors over what to do next. And—

AMY GOODMAN: Jim, I wanted to go to a CBS 60 Minutes report aired in 2014, when correspondent Lesley Stahl asked Bill Keller, then the executive editor of The New York Times, about the meeting he was summoned to at the White House that made Keller decide not to run your story.

BILL KELLER: The president said, you know, “If there’s another attack like 9/11, you know, we’re going to be called up before Congress to explain how we let that happen, and you should be sitting alongside us.” It was, in effect, you know, “You could have blood on your hands.”

LESLEY STAHL: He was saying, “If anything goes wrong, we’re going to blame you.”


AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Bill Keller, then the executive editor of The New York Times. James—

JAMES RISEN: That was actually—that was actually a later meeting. That was the final meeting, where—right before they published the story. There were other meetings earlier with the government that led to their decision not—the decision to kill the story. But that—actually, that meeting with the president was at the very end of the whole process.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that was at the end of the process.


AMY GOODMAN: And then they decided to run the story, because you were doing it anyway.

JAMES RISEN: Yeah, yeah. Yeah, I mean, they would argue—and there’s some truth to it—that the story was much better by the time—by the fall—by the winter of 2005. It’s true, it was. We had more information, and we had a lot stronger understanding of the program.

The primary—you know, there were several reasons that I think, in the end, they decided to run the story. You know, my book started the whole process all over again. And I think the story was dead at The New York Times after the second time they killed it, in December 2004. And I think you’ve got to say, the only reason they reopened it, the discussion, was because I told them it was going to be in my book. You know, but then there was a whole—they then started this whole series of new negotiations with the government throughout the fall of 2005 and a whole series of meetings. And I was getting very anxious, because I knew my book was coming out in January 2006, and they kept having these very—a whole series of meetings that went on forever, and culminating in that meeting with Bush and Sulzberger. And then, after that meeting between Sulzberger and Bush, the White House still wanted them to meet with more people. And I was, at that point, very concerned that they weren’t going to make up their mind fast enough. And they seemed, you know, not to want to admit that they were facing a deadline.

And then, fortunately, Eric Lichtblau, my colleague on the story, came in with new information right at the end, where he was told by a very good source that the Bush administration had considered getting a court-ordered injunction against The New York Times to stop the publication of the story. And that was the first time since the Pentagon Papers that the government had thought about doing that against The New York Times. And so, that immediately convinced the paper to publish the story that day—or that night. And so that was the final reason, ultimately, that it went in that night. And Keller called the White House to tell them we were about to publish it. And then we—the difference we had between—with The New York Times of the 1970s is, we had the internet. And so, right after he called the White House and told them, we were able to put it online earlier than normal and then have it in the paper the next day. So, it was, you know, a process that lasted—you know, took up almost two years of my life, really, in the end.

AMY GOODMAN: And this is the piece for which you and Eric Lichtblau won the Pulitzer Prize?

JAMES RISEN: Yes, yeah, yeah. And then we did follow-up stories. And what—

AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, the Times won the prize, as well.

JAMES RISEN: Right, right, right. Yeah, and it was a very, you know, difficult period for me, because, first, we—I was kind of being thought of as being insubordinate. And then we win the Pulitzer for the same thing, so it was this weird, weird process for me of, you know, fighting internally and then getting the praise externally.

AMY GOODMAN: And the Pulitzer Committee wrote, “For their carefully sourced stories on secret domestic eavesdropping that stirred a national debate on the boundary line between fighting terrorism and protecting civil liberty.” When you win a Pulitzer, the editors come out—what, you pop the champagne corks. Were they celebrating you? And did they apologize to you behind the scenes?

JAMES RISEN: No, they didn’t apologize. Yeah, we had the celebration. And I think I write in the story it was very odd for me, because, you know, a few months earlier, I had felt like they were—I was about to get fired, if the story came out in my book first and the paper hadn’t run it before it was in the book. And now, you know, they were having a celebration. And I remember thinking, “This is one of the most awkward moments in my life.” But I just decided not to say anything about that, and just, you know, I looked—I remember I looked over at Keller and Sulzberger and just said, “Well, you know how tough this was.” And it was—I felt like, at that point, I wasn’t going to make a big deal out of it again, so…

AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, it isn’t about just apologizing to you. It’s about apologizing to the American people or, because it’s a global paper, to the world, around the issue of what it means to publish a story that changes the landscape, the politics of a country. James Risen, we have to break, and when we come back, you mentioned there were two stories that you were publishing in your book—


AMY GOODMAN: —that the Times had suppressed, and I want to talk about the other, as well, and then what it meant to face jail for not revealing your source. We’re not just talking under the Bush administration now, because though you thought it would all change under the Obama administration, it only intensified. We’re speaking with the twice Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter James Risen. He’s now The Intercept’s senior national security correspondent and best-selling author, but, before that, he worked for The New York Times. And he tells this story in a 15,000-word article at We will link to it at Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: “Pressure Drop” by Toots and the Maytals, yes, as much of the country experiences the bomb cyclone, or hyper-bombogenesis. This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we spend the hour with the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist James Risen, who was a longtime reporter for The New York Times, now at The Intercept, where this week he’s published a 15,000-word piece headlined “The Biggest Secret: My Life as a New York Times Reporter in the Shadow of the War on Terror.” James Risen, pursued by both the Bush and Obama administrations as part of a six-year leak investigation into his book and articles. 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.

Now, so, Jim, you talked about the warrantless wiretapping story. What about the Iran story, the other story that the Times ultimately would not publish, that could have ended you up in jail?

JAMES RISEN: Right. I was—in 2003, I got this story that showed that the CIA had had this really flawed program to try to influence the Iranian nuclear program. What they had done was they had taken some Russian nuclear blueprints that they had gotten from a defector, and then had American scientists embed flaws into the blueprints. And then they had another Russian—another Russian who was supposed to go give these blueprints to the Iranians and act like he was a greedy scientist who just wanted money. The problem was that, you know, in a letter, clearly, the Russian was worried about what was going to happen. The Russian—because the Russian told the Americans, as soon as he—told the CIA, after he saw these blueprints, “You know, I can—you can see the flaws in these things.” And they still went ahead with the operation, even though the flaws seemed fairly obvious. And he wrote a letter and gave the letter to—left it with the Iranians at their Vienna mission, along with the blueprints, saying, “You will see problems in here.” And, you know, so, he was telling the Iranians that the blueprints he was giving them had flaws in them, which was kind of the whole point of this operation. So, in other words, it’s quite possible—we don’t know exactly how this all played out in Iran, but it’s quite possible that these blueprints—that since they were tipped off to the fact that there were flaws in the blueprints, that the Iranians were able to use them, use the good parts of them and not the bad parts. In any event, so that’s how the program seemed to be flawed.

And so, this was coming—I was starting to work on this right around the time of the invasion of Iraq, when the whole—one of the big justifications for the war in Iraq was this—the WMD program that Iraq supposedly had. So I thought it was really important to write about Iran’s nuclear—you know, the CIA effort on Iran, when Iran looked like it was going to be the next war. There were a lot of people in the Bush administration who, at that time, were talking about, “Oh, well, you know, as soon as we knock off Iraq, we’ll go after Iran or Syria or something.” And so I thought it was a really important story, and very relevant and newsworthy, and would have been in the public interest.

But as soon as I called the CIA for comment, Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser, called Jill Abramson, who was then the Washington bureau chief for The New York Times, and—demanding a meeting. And so, Jill and I went to the White House in late April or early May of 2003, and we met with Rice and George Tenet, the CIA director. And they were adamant that we not publish the story. And I remember Rice telling me, “Never make another phone call about this story ever again. And you should destroy your notes and never talk to anybody ever about this.” But at the same time, you know, they were confirming the story. And the only thing that Tenet disputed in the conversation was that the program had been mismanaged. And so, you know, Jill and I left that meeting kind of very stunned by the over-the-top approach that they had taken to try to get us to kill the story. But I also realized, you know, we had great confirmation now of the story, too.

And so, you know, pretty soon, I wanted to get the story published. But it was happening coincidentally just as the whole Jayson Blair scandal was happening at The New York Times. And if you remember that, it was a very weird time at the paper, where Jayson Blair was this young reporter who had, you know, had some problems, and there was a lot of questions about his reporting. And that led to a big crisis in the leadership of the paper, and Howell Raines, who was the executive editor at the time, was forced out. And then there was an interim editor who came in, and then, finally, Keller, Bill Keller, was named the executive editor that summer. And so, I ultimately took the story to him, and he decided not to publish it. And I tried several times over the next year to get him to change his mind, but he wouldn’t. And so, that was the backdrop. That had been going on before we started talking about the NSA story the following year.

AMY GOODMAN: And I wanted to just play a clip of the woman who would become The New York Times executive editor, Jill Abramson, in an interview published online by CBS 60 Minutes in 2014, that Abramson regrets not pushing your paper to publish the story, James Risen, about the CIA’s efforts to undermine Iran’s nuclear program.

JILL ABRAMSON: I regret it now, but I think that I had—I leaned towards not publishing. It seemed, in the calculus of all of the major stories we were dealing with at that point, not worth it to me. And I regret that decision now. I regret that I did not back a great reporter, Jim Risen, who I had worked with and who had then worked for me and whose work I knew was solid as a rock.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that was the woman who became The New York Times executive editor, Jill Abramson. Now, Jim, describe then how these two stories interacted with each other, one that was published by the Times, which won the Pulitzer Prize, one that was published in your book, and how you ended up facing jail.

JAMES RISEN: Well, it was interesting. You know, as I said, this started happening with the Iran story in 2003. And then, in 2004, I had the NSA story. And so, I was—you know, as I said earlier, I was so frustrated and furious, I decided, once they had killed both of them—and they had also killed other stories I had worked on before that—I just—I decided that I had to write a book, because I didn’t feel like I could cover the war on terror or the post-9/11 world at The New York Times in the way that I wanted. And so I started working on the book. And after they had killed the NSA story for the second time, in December of 2004, I decided to take—I took a book leave that I had scheduled, and I decided to put both of them, both those stories, in my book. And as I said, I came back to the paper, and then, in the late summer, early fall of 2005, I told the editors those stories are going to be in my book and that they should publish them. And it was very odd, but the entire conversations—all the conversations I had with the editors over the next few months were focused on the NSA story and not the Iran story. And we hardly had any discussions at all about the Iran story. And so, you know, they published the NSA story but not the Iran story. And it wasn’t because we had a big meeting at that late point, you know, in the winter of 2005, about the Iran story. We never—hardly ever discussed it during that time period.

And so, after my book came out, the Bush administration launched a couple of leak investigations. The main one was about the NSA story in The New York Times. They wanted to find out who had talked to us. And then, what I found later was that they had started a second leak investigation of my book and that they had—they were looking at several chapters, about several different issues that were in my book but which I hadn’t published in The New York Times. And I became convinced that they were looking for something to get me on, where they could isolate me from The New York Times. And ultimately, they decided on the Iran story. But I know that there were FBI agents and government officials looking at other chapters that had nothing to do with the Iran story, as well. And so, I always felt like they were just looking for things, ultimately, where they could divide me from The New York Times. And that’s ultimately what they did do. They decided—they had a grand jury that was investigating the leak on the NSA story to The New York Times, but they never pursued it. They dropped that. And instead, they had a second grand jury that investigated my book, and that’s what they pursued.

AMY GOODMAN: And explain what happened from there. Explain what this meant to say they pursued it.

JAMES RISEN: They have.

AMY GOODMAN: And did the Times defend you on the Iran story, as well, which they hadn’t published?

JAMES RISEN: Well, what happened was, you know, we continued to do reporting for the paper and did a—Eric Lichtblau and I did another big story on the SWIFT program and how the CIA was spying on the banking records of Americans and others. And that led to just a growing chorus in the Bush administration, and among their conservative supporters outside, that they should try to prosecute The New York Times and me and Eric and Keller, in particular, for revealing classified information. So, there was this drumbeat going on throughout 2006 about whether or not the government was going to try to either prosecute us for—under the Espionage Act, or just subpoena us and try to force us to testify about who our sources were. And they decided not to do that.

And then, in—and so I thought that—I kind of thought maybe, you know, they had forgotten about us, until, in the summer of 2007, like a year and a half after our stories ran, I got a letter in a Federal Express envelope at my house from the Justice Department saying, you know, “We’re conducting a criminal investigation of unauthorized disclosures of classified information in your book State of War, and we want you to cooperate and tell us who—where you got this information.” And I realized that it was the precursor to a subpoena, because under the Justice Department’s guidelines for how they deal with the media, they’re supposed to seek to negotiate or ask you voluntarily first, before they subpoena you, whether you will cooperate. And I refused to cooperate. And then, in January 2008, I finally got a subpoena from the Justice Department demanding that I testify before a grand jury in Alexandria, Virginia, about the chapter in my book that related to the Iran CIA operation. And at that point, I had to get lawyers, and Simon & Schuster, which owned the imprint, the Free Press, which published my book, agreed to provide legal—you know, my lawyers. The New York Times did not provide any legal help for me.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, you learned much later about—you know, this is both the story of what happened with your two cases, but the extent to which the Times was meeting with top officials, like Michael Hayden.

JAMES RISEN: Mm-hmm, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: If you can explain, for example, the meeting between Philip Taubman and Michael Hayden and the fact that you weren’t included in a number of these stories about the pieces you were writing?

JAMES RISEN: Right, yeah. There were—I’m not sure how many meetings there were, because I was—you know, there were meetings between Taubman and Hayden and other people at the NSA. And Hayden describes in his memoir in 2016, which I hadn’t—frankly, I hadn’t read until I started doing this piece. And there was a really fascinating exchange in there, where he describes how, after the first meeting that Taubman and I had with John McLaughlin and John Moseman, his chief of staff, in—

AMY GOODMAN: McLaughlin, the former head of CIA.

JAMES RISEN: Before the 2004 election, he describes how he thought he could work with Taubman, but not with me. And so, that led to further meetings between Hayden and Taubman that I wasn’t included in, and—or Eric was included in. And there was one where he—apparently, Taubman was taken out to NSA headquarters, and Hayden allowed him to meet with officials who were actually involved in the domestic spying program, and let him talk to them and ask them questions. But then he came back to the office, and he told me and Eric that he couldn’t tell us the details of what he had learned, because it was—you know, he had agreed to keep it secret or keep it off the record. And then there was, I think, another meeting between Keller—with Keller and Taubman, where they came back after—I’m not sure who they met—where they came back and said that they had, you know, been given a briefing on the program, and they couldn’t tell us the details of what they’d been told.

AMY GOODMAN: We have to break again. We’re just going to break for 30 seconds. And when we come back, we’ll talk about what ultimately happened, because, of course, then Bush was out of office, Obama was. You had high hopes, until you saw they were going to pursue you with a vengeance. We’re talking with the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist James Risen, who just has written an amazing 15,000-word piece, “The Biggest Secret,” as he talks about not only government suppression, attempts to to suppress his pieces at the Times, but the Times itself. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: “I Against I” by Mos Def. This song is for Amel. This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, as we spend the hour with James Risen, the Pulitzer Prize-winning former New York Times journalist, now with The Intercept, where he’s written this remarkable piece titled “The Biggest Secret: My Life as a New York Times Reporter in the Shadow of the War on Terror.” In 2013, President Obama said he made no apologies for seeking to crack down on leaks.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Leaks related to national security can put people at risk. They can put men and women in uniform that I’ve sent into the battlefield at risk. They can put some of our intelligence officers, who are in various dangerous situations that are easily compromised, at risk. … So, I make no apologies, and I don’t think the American people would expect me, as commander-in-chief, not to be concerned about information that might compromise their missions or might get them killed.

AMY GOODMAN: So that’s President Obama. James Risen, in December 2016, you wrote a piece in The New York Times, “If [Donald] Trump Targets Journalists, Thank Obama.” So—

JAMES RISEN: Yeah, yeah. I mean—

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about what happened. We only have three minutes. Then we’ll do a post-show and post it online.


AMY GOODMAN: But we only have three minutes. Talk about what happened once Bush was out of office and you thought you were home free.

JAMES RISEN: Well, you know, as I said, I was subpoenaed first in January 2008, which, as you remember, was an election year. And I was—as that case slowly wound its way through the court, I realized, “Well, we’ve only got a few months until the election, and maybe we can—you know, the new president will get rid of this.” And I think the judge agreed. And the judge in my case, Judge Brinkema in Virginia, she was—I think, moved the case very slowly during that year, thinking that, “Well, the new president will get rid of this,” because she didn’t make any decisions for several months, until after the election, like in June or July of 2009. She finally issued this brief little memo saying, “Well, I see that the grand jury in this case has been—has expired, and that means this subpoena is probably moot.” And she said, “I give 10 days to the government to drop this case.” And I think she thought the Obama people were going to drop it, as well.

And instead, the new Obama administration said, “No, no, no, no. Hold on. We want to—we want to issue a new subpoena.” And they issued a new subpoena and then pursued this case throughout the entire administration. And it went on. When she quashed their subpoenas against me to the grand jury, they would issue a new one. And then she would quash the next one. And then, when they issued a trial subpoena to me, she quashed that, and they took that to the appeals court.

And they, finally, in their motion to the—in their brief to the appeals court, they said, “The reason we believe that we want this subpoena is because there’s no such thing as a reporter’s privilege,” which is a fundamental constitutional issue of whether or not a reporter has a right to protect their sources. And they believed that a reporter has no right to do that. And so, in that regard, they were no different from Trump or Bush.

AMY GOODMAN: We just have 30 seconds, but you begin your piece there, when you’re going into court, the ultimate moment, where you don’t know if you’re going to be sent to jail at this point or not.

JAMES RISEN: Right. Yeah, that was in January 2015. The case had gone to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court refused to hear my appeal of their appeal, and so I had no more legal recourse to avoid appearing in court. And I just refused to—I said I was not going to reveal my sources, when the prosecutor asked me. And at that moment, the prosecutor blinked and said, “OK, we have no further questions for you.”

AMY GOODMAN: James Risen, we have to leave it there, but we’re going to do a post-show, post it online at, the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, now with The Intercept as national security correspondent. We’ll link to his piece, “The Biggest Secret: My Life as a New York Times Reporter in the Shadow of the War on Terror.”

That does it for our show. A fond farewell to our news fellow Amel Ahmed. We wish you all the very best.

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