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

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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.

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

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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."

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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."

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AMY GOODMAN: Jim, before you continue --

JAMES RISEN: Yeah.

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