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updated 1/3/2006 7:33:16 PM ET

NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams

Reporter defends release of NSA spy program
James Risen says his sources are ‘patriots,’ CIA calls them ‘unreliable’
By Andrea Mitchell
NBC News

New York Times reporter James Risen first broke the story two weeks ago that the National Security Agency began spying on domestic communications soon after 9/11. In a new book out Tuesday, "State of War," he says it was a lot bigger than that. Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent Andrea Mitchell sat down with Risen to talk about the NSA, and the run-up to the war in Iraq. Following is an edited transcript of the interview.

Andrea Mitchell: The president has said that the NSA only intercepted a few people — a few numbers — that if the enemy, the bad guys are calling, we want to know what they're saying. What's wrong with that?

James Risen: There's nothing wrong with that except there are laws that govern the way in which the United States and the intelligence community can eavesdrop on people inside the United States. Both American citizens and other people who are physically in the United States and the people who came forward to discuss this with Eric Lichtblau and myself felt that the Bush administration was at best skirting the laws — the existing laws — that govern the way in which the NSA and the intelligence community is supposed to operate in the United States.

Mitchell: But the president is saying that we are at war. This is the enemy. If the enemy is calling people to make plans to attack Americans, why wouldn't we want to listen in?

Risen: I think we probably would, but the question is, should we follow the laws that exist, should we adhere to court decisions and the will of Congress? And I just think that I'm a reporter and I just felt that this was an issue that deserved public debate. Perhaps in the end the public will agree with the president, but I think it's something that should be discussed by Congress and the courts and by the people.

Mitchell: Is the president correct when he tells the American people that the NSA was only intercepting "a few numbers?"

Risen: Well, what we've been told is that they were eavesdropping on roughly 500 people in the United States every day over the past three or four years. That adds up to potentially thousands of people, and so because this program has been so classified, it's difficult to determine exactly who they were listening  to. It started out relatively small, going after numbers they had taken from captured al-Qaida prisoners and then expanded out in kind of a large data mining operation. What they got was access to main telecommunication switches that go in and out of the United States, which carry huge volumes of telecommunication traffic. And that, in effect, gave them access to the main bulk of communications in and out of the United States. So without oversight, it's difficult to tell how many people and to what degree they were really listening to people.

Mitchell: Once they got access through agreement from the telecommunications companies, correct? Once the companies gave them access, they were able, by using super computers, to pull up potentially threatening calls or interesting calls or possible leads?

Risen: Well, they were doing data mining. They were going thru the entire system looking for patterns of phone numbers and other information. So, there was both the actual eavesdropping on some numbers and a more sophisticated pattern analysis. It's difficult to tell how those two things worked together, but all of this was being done without search warrants which in the past had always been required.

Mitchell: But isn't this exactly what everyone criticized the administration and Bill Clinton and other administrations for not doing? The president and his administration was criticized for not connecting the dots. Isn't this eavesdropping a very sophisticated way of connecting the dots?

Risen: Yeah, certainly that's part of it. The question really is not whether or not this program could be effective — you could listen to all 250 million Americans and that would be a very effective counter-terrorism tool. The question is, where is the balance between security and civil liberties? And that's something I think the American people should debate. And it's not up to me to decide. It's just, I'm just reporting on what happened.

Mitchell: The White House argues that they didn't have time to get warrants and that they could lose valuable leads by waiting to get warrants. Are they correct in that?

Risen: Well, you can under FISA, the law that's been in place for 30 years. In an emergency you can listen in on a phone number without a warrant for 72 hours before you have to then go get a warrant. So there were means with which you could — legal means — with which you could go after individual phone numbers without a warrant. What I think that the administration really felt was the volume of phone numbers they wanted to listen to was so large that they felt that it would have been difficult to get enough search warrants in fast enough time to make this program work. I also think that they wanted to do it in secret. They believed that it was better to keep this secret, obviously, than to make sure no one knew about it.

Mitchell: Were they worried that the court would not agree to such a broad search?

Risen: Well, the fact that when they started this, they notified the chief judge of the FISA court -- the foreign intelligence act surveillance court — but they didn't ask for his permission or authorization and they didn't tell the other judges on the court and they didn't seek changes in the laws in Congress. They notified a key few members of Congress, but they didn't ask their permission. And so, I think the question really is, did that provide for a sufficient authorization or notification or oversight And those are the issues I think that Congress and the people and the courts should decide.

Mitchell: You've described your sources as classic whistleblowers. Why should we trust you and them and their version of events? They were anonymous sources.

Risen: Well, I think that these were people who came forward because they believed something was wrong in the government and that they felt that, you know, they weren't motivated by anything, I think, other than a sense that they were seeing something that was deeply troubling and they felt the American people should know about it. And I think that in a very real way makes them patriots, because I think that's the best that we can ask for people who work in the government — that they do their duty and if they see something wrong, they try to do something about it.

Mitchell: Weren't they breaking the law?

Risen: I think that's really a balancing act. What is a whistleblower? In a time when the government is imposing an enormous amount of secrecy on all of its activities.

Mitchell: Did you have any concerns about revealing this secret program?

Risen: No, I thought that the American people really needed to know about this. I think it had to be debated publicly.

Mitchell: Do you have any qualms about the fact The New York Times didn't let the American people know for a year, which meant that hundreds of people — thousands probably — were eavesdropped on for that period of silence?

Risen: No, I think that The New York Times really deserves a lot of credit for performing a public service for printing this story and so I think that The Times actually deserves much more credit than it has so far for performing a major public service

Mitchell: Was there pressure not to report this before the election?

Risen: Well, I can't get into all the details about what happened inside The Times, but I think the government obviously over a period of time asked us not to print the story, but I think that, as said, The Times has done a great service in printing this story.

Mitchell: What changed to permit The Times to publish this story after holding it for a year?

Risen: Well, I think that you know we got more information as the paper has said, but I have agreed not to discuss in any detail what happened. But I just think that it was a great decision to go forward.

Mitchell: The Justice Department is now investigating the leak. Are you concerned about being forced to reveal your sources?

Risen: Well, I would rather not, obviously. I hope that doesn't happen, but I can't really talk about that until the time comes. Hopefully, we won't have to face that.

Mitchell: Will you resist revealing sources?

Risen: Well, I don't want to get into what I'll plan to do, because it's not something I have to think about right now.

Mitchell: Couldn't some people call your sources traitors?

Risen: People can call them anything they want. It's a free country. You can call something anything and people today call people all kinds of things. I know what they are and I know what they did and I believe they're patriots.

Mitchell: Do you have any information about reporters being swept up in this net?

Risen: No, I don't. It's not clear to me. That's one of the questions we'll have to look into the future. Were there abuses of this program or not? I don't know the answer to that

Mitchell: You are very, very tough on the CIA and the administration in general in both the war on terror and the run up to the war and the war itself the post-war operation. Let's talk about the war on terror. Why do you think they missed so many signals and what do you think caused the CIA to have this sort of break down as you describe it?

Risen: I think that, you know, to me, the greater break down was really on Iraq. It's very difficult to have known ahead of time about these 19 hijackers. They were, you know, probably lucky that they got through and they did something that no one really assumed anybody would ever do. And I think that made 9/11 a lot like Pearl Harbor. That even when you see all the clues in front of you that it's very difficult to put it together.

I think I'm harder on the book on the CIA for their failures on Iraq and WMD, because I think that was an issue that was sitting in front of them for a decade and they knew for many years this was a top priority of the government. And they never really did much about it and they never really developed the spies or the agents or the information they needed to sort out what was really happening in Iraq. They just kind of developed an assumption within the CIA that Iraq has WMD without really doing much intellectual challenging their own assumptions in a serious way.

Mitchell: What happened to CIA officers or analysts who doubted the presence of weapons of mass destruction? What kind of reception did they receive?

Risen: Well, you have to get back into that time period and remember, I think, that one of the things that was different from what people realize — not many people doubted that there was WMD, they assumed there was WMD. What they knew or what they were troubled by was that there wasn't much the intelligence on that wasn't very strong. And they didn't have many people in the CIA who were troubled by the lack of strong conclusive intelligence. That doesn't mean they didn't think there was WMD, but they just didn't think the intelligence was as strong as the administration was saying. And the people who had those doubts tended to get pushed aside for whatever reason. And I think that's one of the real troubling issues.

Mitchell: Among the players whom you describe, you say that the Secretary of State got rolled, really, by the Secretary of Defense, and so did the National Security Advisor.

Risen: The power in this administration was Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld and that Cheney and Rumsfeld really set the national security agenda for the administration. And Secretary Powell kind of went into the administration, I think, thinking that he was going to be the major player and everyone was surprised by the way in which Rumsfeld kind of worked around him. And I think Condoleezza Rice found herself constantly having to catch up with Rumsfeld and Cheney from what people have told me.

Mitchell: What about the role of George Tenet? How do you describe him?

Risen: I think during the Clinton administration he was a good peace time CIA director. Someone who had rebuilt the budgets and morale, but I think when it came time to working with the Bush administration and 9/11 and the war in Iraq, I think he was kind of overmatched by people like Rumsfeld and Cheney as well. And as a result the CIA kind of got swept up in a kind of war fever.

Mitchell: How did that affect decisions that were made about WMD?

Risen: Well, I think it tended to make it so that there was a sense that intelligence that seemed to prove that there was WMD in Iraq went forward and got the White House and any doubts about that were kind of pushed aside. Now whether that was directly because of any decisions or policies that were made is difficult to tell. I compare it to like workplace harassment. It's always hard to tell what or why something happens in a workplace. But I think in this case it was an atmosphere that was created for whatever reason that a lot of people felt.

Mitchell: Did the president create the atmosphere, or was it Cheney and Rumsfeld? You seem to describe it more as the cabinet and the vice president, the war council, operating, rather than the president himself. He's strangely absent.

Risen: Yeah, I think that's probably right. I mean, it's difficult to tell at that level who is saying what to whom. I think that, in many ways, that it was this atmosphere created by this alternative national security apparatus, created by Rumsfeld and Cheney that kind of forced the CIA back on its heels and forced the State Department back on its heels, and let the more pro-war caucus step forward.

Mitchell: You describe kind of a "Hail Mary" pass, sending as many as 30 Iraq ex-patriots, Iraqi Americans, back to talk to their relatives who were scientists, possibly involved in weapons, and you describe a woman, a doctor, from the Cleveland Clinic. Tell me that story.

Risen: Yes, she was an Iraqi American. She and her husband had escaped from Iraq in the 70s and her brother had stayed behind in Iraq and was a scientist. And he got caught up in the nuclear weapons program in Iraq in the early 80s, and stayed in it until it ended in about '91, at the end of the Gulf War. In 2002, the CIA asked her to go to Iraq, to talk to her brother about what was going on with WMD in Iraq. And she went and talked to her brother, and he said there is no WMD, we don't have a nuclear program, we haven't had one in 10 years, it ended at the end of the Gulf War. And she came back and told that to the CIA, and nothing happened.

Mitchell: Didn't they assume that the brother was just lying to her?

Risen: Yeah, I think the CIA assumed that all these relatives were being lied to, because they were under pressure from Saddam, and that it was just disinformation. Unfortunately, it was truth.

Mitchell: The truth was sitting right there in front of them?

Risen: Right, right, which is one of the great tragedies.

Mitchell: Why do you think that the warnings were ignored, from all these people who came back, this doctor from Cleveland, this woman, who rather courageously went back to Iraq? So this doctor comes back, she tells the CIA that her brother told her that there are no nuclear weapons, there was no program, it was all shut down, and they ignore her. Why?

Risen: Well, because I think, as I said earlier, it wasn't what they expected to hear or what they wanted to hear. They were looking for confirmation that there was WMD because they believed there was WMD, and they believed anybody who told them there wasn't any WMD had to be lying. And I think that's different from saying they were lying. I don't think the president was lying. I don't think the CIA was lying. I think they just had a group think that took hold, and they came to so strongly believe that there was WMD, that they tended to ignore any evidence to the contrary.

Mitchell: Why do you think that a significant warning from the head of the European Bureau that a particular source was dead wrong, curve ball. Why did that warning not get to Colin Powell. How did he give false testimony, basically, to the United Nations when the CIA knew better?

Risen: I think that's for the same reason that this was a story that should be included in the speech, and that it was something that confirmed what they already believed about biological weapons. And I just think there was kind of a go fever on WMD and Iraq, and if you talk to people in the CIA, they felt that there was people like Tyler Drumheller, who raised that issue, were being ignored. And there were people who thought that the management of the CIA was kind of saying, you know, we'll find the WMD when we get there. And that that was the attitude.

Mitchell: In the war against al-Qaida, how did the CIA get into the prison business?

Risen: Well, that's a great question that is still being, we're still trying to determine. I think the president made the determination early on that he was going to treat the war on terror as a national security issue rather than a law enforcement issue. I think he saw the Clinton administration dealt with terror as a law enforcement issue, and he didn't want to do that. So he wanted to make the military and the CIA the lead agencies on this, and put the Justice Department and the FBI in the background, at least at first. And that led the CIA to set up these secret detention facilities around the world, and begin conducting interrogations of al-Qaida leaders, and it was something the CIA hadn't done in the past, and it was an all-new business for them to get into.

Mitchell: Administration officials from the president on down, say the United States does not engage in torture. Is that true?

Risen: Torture is in the eye of the beholder, I guess. And it's a subjective thing. People inside the CIA that I've talked to believe that's what happened. Some of them believe that it is torture, others, would say no. So it's all a matter of what your own position on that is. I tend to think that if you are performing these harsh tactics on people over and over again, then that's abusive. So the question is, is it legally torture? I don't know. But it's something some people believe is.

Mitchell: And do you think the American people really care about that? About whether or not al-Qaida prisoners are being treated abusively?

Risen: I think the important thing is that we, as a country, have some values that we have to maintain. It's not really about whether or not, how we treat these people, it's more a reflection of ourselves, and so I think we have to think of it in those terms. How do we want to act in the world? And I think if we think about it in those terms, it's a different question than, you know, is it OK to just seek revenge against these guys?

Mitchell: You described the president and George Tenet, discussing the interrogation of a particularly important prisoner, Abu Zabida. You describe what the president said to Tenant. What does that say?

Risen: As I say in the book, there's some dispute about whether this conversation took place, but what I was told by one particularly good source was that in discussing Abu Zabaida, who had been wounded right after his capture, and was being given medical treatment, that the president asked Tenet who authorized putting him on pain medication? Now there are people close to Tenet who say they've never heard that story, and don't believe it, which is what I say in the book, but it raises the question about the signals that the president was sending to the CIA and the military, about the way in which people should be treated in prisons. And even without that conversation it was pretty clear that the president had told or made it clear to the CIA that the gloves were to come off now, in going after al-Qaida.

Mitchell: Do you have proof of that?

Risen: Well, I think he has all the public statements, in addition to anything in private. I think he has made it clear that he wanted a get tough policy on al-Qaida.

Mitchell: Would it surprise you to know that at least one source says that that conversation was between Dick Cheney and George Tenet?

Risen: I haven't heard that. That's interesting.

Mitchell: When you talk about Iran, you describe in 2004, I believe, how a CIA operative, mistakenly, sent an e-mail to the wrong person, and exposed the American spies inside Iran?

Risen: I guess there's some dispute about exactly what the damage was done, but it appears from what I was told, that there was information that could be used to identify a whole number of sources that was sent through communications to one source who was possibly a double agent, and so that that may have exposed several agents, and so the question is, how much damage was done to our ability to watch Iran?

Mitchell: Do you think that the CIA unwittingly exposed its own agents inside Iran?

Risen: I think so. It's quite possible, yes.

Mitchell: Possible, likely?

Risen: I think it seems like it did. There might be some dispute about how much damage was done, but it seems like there was a serious breach.

Mitchell: Were people killed?

Risen: It's unclear, unclear to me.

Mitchell: You also describe what sounds like a bungled CIA attempt to trick the Iranians into thinking that they had obtained a Russian nuclear weapons design, when in fact the CIA planted a false design. Do you think that the CIA deliberately gave a potentially useful design information for a nuclear weapon to Iran?

Risen: I think they were trying to do an operation that would confuse the Iranians, but it was so poorly managed, that there were some questions about whether or not this worked or not. This goes back to the Clinton years, this happened like six years ago, so it's kind of obsolete now, but it was such a bungled operation that it raised in my mind, it kind of raised the same questions about WMD intelligence that some of the other issues did, about whether or not we really have any ability to know what's going on in other countries, or to deal with WMD issues around the world.

Mitchell: As you yourself write, Iran had other sources for nuclear technology, Pakistani. Do you think that the main advances that Iran may have achieved in nuclear weaponry came from this bungled CIA operation?

Risen: No, I don't. I think this really was probably pretty trivial, but it was just, I thought, kind of a good yarn that goes back a long ways that shows kind of how broken the WMD intelligence system was.

Mitchell: And this operation was started under Clinton, didn't it continue under George Bush?

Risen: I'm not sure how long it continued, but what I write about took place in 2000, and the goal is that that was the main thing.

Mitchell: Do you have any concerns about putting this in your book? Didn't The New York Times withhold the information about the Iranian operation? Have they ever printed that to your knowledge?

Risen: No, they haven't printed it, but again, I don't want to get into The New York Times, one way or the other.

Mitchell: But did you have concerns about putting it into your book?

Risen: I thought about it, you know. I thought about everything. one way or the other, but I thought that this story was so old, that it no longer really mattered. As I said, goes back to the Clinton years.

Mitchell: How do you balance your own role finally? You've broken some major stories here, and critics, the administration will say that it compromises American efforts on the war on terror, and gives our enemies clues as to the way we operate.

Risen: I think that vigorous and independent investigative reporting is critical to the functioning of a healthy democracy. And it's what separates us from other countries. And if we decide that we don't want independent, aggressive investigative reporting, then we'll become more like other countries and less like the United States.

Mitchell: Would you go to jail to protect sources?

Risen: Well, I'd rather not have to think about that right now.

Mitchell: Thank you very, very much.

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