A burgeoning “climate of fear” within government agencies makes national security a challenging beat, New York Times reporter James Risen ’77 told a crowd of roughly 80 students and community members Saturday evening in Alumnae Hall.
The history concentrator turned national security correspondent, who won a Pulitzer Prize earlier this year for exposing the National Security Agency’s warrantless wiretapping program, discussed the morphing relationship between the press and the government at a talk titled “Press Freedom and Covering the Bush Administration,” which was sponsored by The Herald.
Risen said the administration of President George W. Bush has limited press freedom more than any administration since former President Richard Nixon’s, adding that government officials are scared to talk to reporters.
“(The fear) is palpable,” he said. “It’s been frightening to watch.”
In 2004, Risen and fellow Times reporter Eric Lichtblau learned that the National Security Agency was eavesdropping on phone calls in the United States without obtaining search warrants. Yet in December 2005, when the Times published stories about the program, critics lambasted the newspaper for exposing classified information and for waiting many months to run the piece.
Risen said Times editors delayed publishing the story because the Bush administration pressured them to scrap the piece. In an Oval Office meeting, Bush told Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger that if the story’s publication curbed anti-terrorism efforts and terrorists struck again, the paper would have “blood on its hands.”
“Even though you know it’s a political effort, it’s still really kind of intimidating when it’s happening to you,” Risen said.
Risen said he is now more confident than he was when the story appeared that the Times was legally and journalistically justified in publishing it.
“There is no law against what we’ve done, in spite of what the (Bush) administration wants you to believe,” he said, in reference to publishing classified information.
In the wake of revelations that Times reporter Judith Miller wrote flawed stories about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, Risen said the wiretapping story was significant because “it changed the real dynamic of the Washington press corps,” inspiring other journalists to sharpen their investigative teeth.
He added that reporters’ willingness to ask questions has been particularly vital in the post-Sept. 11, 2001, era.
“If you look back since 9/11, virtually everything we know about the way the Bush administration was conducting the war on terrorism has come from the press,” he said. “There’s been almost no congressional oversight.”
For that reason, he said, it is critically important that reporters continue to dig. “If we stop, the public won’t find out what’s going on,” he said.
In that vein, Risen had harsh words for 24-hour cable television news networks, which he accused of regurgitating information published in the Times and the Washington Post.
“CNN, which is probably the best of them, does almost no original reporting,” he said, adding that such networks “have 24 hours to fill and nothing to say.”
Risen, who has been based in Washington since 1990 and authored “State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration,” which was just released in paperback, said the current administration’s foreign policy may change in light of the defeat Republicans suffered in last week’s midterm election.
“It’s sinking in with Bush that his foreign policy is too radical,” Risen said.
He called Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s resignation announcement “the best thing to happen in a long time” and praised Robert Gates, the man nominated to replace Rumsfeld, as “a really smart pragmatic guy.”
At the beginning of his talk, Risen reminisced about his days on College Hill. At Brown, Risen wrote for a politics and features magazine called “Fresh Fruit” that was owned by The Herald. The one-on-one he scored with then Providence Mayor Vincent “Buddy” Cianci Jr. was the interview that inspired Risen to become a journalist.
Students who attended the lecture had mixed responses to Risen.
Andrew Kurtzman ’08 thought Risen gave short shrift to the Bush administration’s rationale for keeping the wiretapping program secret.
“He should at least have acknowledged the government’s need to maintain secrets at times of war,” Kurtzman said.
Michael Robinson ’08 said Risen’s critique of current White House policy may have been unfair.
“I thought he was a little overly critical of the Bush administration,” he said.
Nandini Jayakrishna ’10 was intrigued by Risen’s comments about round-the-clock television networks.
“I really was surprised by what he said about CNN, and how it’s not really investigative journalism,” she said. “Now I really want to read (Risen’s) book.”
Risen on Washington reporting, the eavesdropping story and Buddy Cianci
After speaking in Alumnae Hall Saturday, New York Times national security correspondent James Risen ’77, who won a Pulitzer Prize this year for stories he co-wrote about warrantless government eavesdropping, spoke with The Herald.
The Herald: Why do high-ranking officials give you sensitive information?Risen: Well the art of being a reporter is getting people to talk. It doesn’t really matter who it is. Over the years, you develop an ability to talk to people and get people to talk to you. It’s no different in Washington than anyplace else. I think the key to being a good reporter is to be a good listener. Most people like to talk and tell you their stories. My first job was in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and talking to people there was the same as talking to people in Washington.
Do you ever feel like a pawn?Well that’s the hard part – to try to avoid getting used. Every reporter is used to a certain degree because people talk to you for a reason, no matter what. Part of the skill of being a reporter is learning, often by trial and error, how to avoid getting used, and trying to get as much information on all sides of an issue as you can. It’s really hard.
Did the Bush administration’s argument that your eavesdropping story might damage national security make you think twice about running it?I thought it was not a valid argument, because I thought that the only real secret was a political or a legal secret. The secret that we told in our story was that they weren’t getting search warrants. Everybody already knew that we listen to terrorists – that we monitor their phone calls and e-mails – so that was not a secret. The only thing that we really told the American public was that Bush was going around the law.
In your lecture, you described the “climate of fear” the Bush administration has created. How have they done that? What does that mean?They’ve suppressed dissent throughout the administration. I’m not sure how it works. All I can do is see the effect. I’ve wondered why this fear exists, because it’s not obvious for me. But it’s palpable; it’s real. I think what they do is they set examples. The famous one in the military was getting rid of General (Eric) Shinseki in the army for saying we needed more troops in Iraq before the war. And that sent a powerful message throughout the military not to speak out against (Defense Secretary Donald) Rumsfeld or Bush on the war in Iraq. But that’s just one example. Throughout the government it became clear that the bosses did not want to hear alternative views of anything.
Why do you think Bush nominated Robert Gates to replace Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld?Well (Gates) is close to George (W.) Bush’s father. He’s close to (former National Security Adviser) Brent Scowcroft. This Bush – the son – is reaching back to the people around his father when he’s really in trouble in Iraq. I wouldn’t be surprised if (the decision) was engineered by his father and by Scowcroft.
How often do you find what you learned as a history concentrator applicable to your role as a journalist?Every day. I think history is the best education you can get to become a journalist. They often call journalism the first draft of history. In order to understand the context of what’s happening today, it really helps a lot to have understood the history of what’s gone on before. And also it gives you skills in research and analysis of events that I think is really good.
You said that interviewing former Providence Mayor Buddy Cianci for the student-run publication “Fresh Fruit” inspired you to go into journalism. What about the experience made such a strong impression?It was just such an entertaining interview – such an entertaining guy. And it was a heady thing to do. I was an undergrad at Brown and he was the mayor. I just thought, “This is great. This is fun. I could see doing this.” I can’t remember exactly what he said, but he was such a colorful character.