Video: Secret CIA History
updated 1/10/2006 5:02:19 PM ET 2006-01-10T22:02:19

“The New York Times” first reported about the National Security Agency's secret domestic spying program nearly a month ago, and the fallout has rocked Washington since as the Bush administration defends itself against charges that it has illegally or unjustifiably expanded its powers. 

James Risen is one of the reporters who broke that story and his reporting on that is part of his new book called “State of War:  The Secret History of the CIA and The Bush Administration.”

Risen joined Norah O’Donnell on Monday’s Hardball to talk about the spying program, its effects and his book. 

To read an excerpt from their conversation, continue to the text below. To watch the video, click on the "Launch" button to the right.

NORAH O'DONNELL, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT: How did you find out about this super secret program? 

JAMES RISEN, AUTHOR, “STATE OF WAR”: Well, some people in the government came to me because they were deeply concerned that they thought something illegal was going on, something very wrong.  And some of them thought that it might be unconstitutional. 

My colleague Eric Lichtblau also began to hear the same thing.  And we began to realize that there was a major program that no one knew about, that a lot of people in the government were deeply concerned about and were troubled by. 

O'DONNELL:  The president says that this NSA spying program that is going on without court warrants only spies on few Americans who are talking to perhaps al Qaeda operatives.  How many people did you find out are being listened to every day? 

RISEN:  Well, as best we can determine, roughly 500 people inside the United States are being eavesdropped on without warrants at any one time. 

O'DONNELL:  That's a lot, isn't it? 

RISEN:  I think so, and I think over a period of three or four years that this program has been in place, that 500 has changed, rotated in and out, and so we've been told that it's safe to say that thousands of people have been listened to. 

O'DONNELL:  Your reporting has set off a firestorm, of course, here in Washington.  The president responded to “The New York Times” story by saying whoever leaked this, it was a shameful act.  Why did you allow this to be reported? 

RISEN:  Well, I think the people who stepped forward are American patriots, because they came forward for the best reasons possible.  They came forward, I think, because they believe something wrong was going on in the government. 

And now we can have a national debate about whether it was wrong or right or whether it's legal or illegal.  I don't know the answer to that.  I think the lawyers and the constitutional scholars in Congress and the courts and the president can all decide that.  My job is just to report on it. 

O'DONNELL:  The president says it was shameful.  The Justice Department says it's now investigating.  Have you talked to any of your sources since and are they worried? 

RISEN:  Well, I'd rather not get into any conversations or discussions I had with my sources.  But I think, as I said, I just think that these people did this for the right reasons.  I think it was the most classic case of whistle blowing I've ever seen. 

O'DONNELL:  Can you be more specific about what you learned about the NSA spying?  You say as many as 500 a day.  How widespread is this? 

RISEN:  Well, one of the problems is that we don't know precisely who they are listening to, because there's very little oversight of the program.  And that's one of the things that troubled the people who stepped forward to talk about it. 

The NSA is allowed to choose who they eavesdrop on without specific prior approval from the Justice Department or the White House, and so the NSA decides who they're listening to and there's virtually no independent oversight or approvals they have to get for each individual wiretap or eavesdropping operation. 

And so that makes it very difficult to determine whether there's been abuses or not. 

O'DONNELL:  Is it possible that there may have been spying on journalists? 

RISEN:  I don't know.  I mean, there's been rumors and reports of that, but we don't know that now.  And I think that further reporting on this whole issue of where there's abuses is something that I think a lot of journalists are now trying to do. 

O'DONNELL: Jim, on page one of this book, you tell an amazing story about the president of the United States hanging up on his father.  What was that about?

RISEN:  Well, what I was told by very well-placed sources was that there was a long period of friction between the current president and his father over his father's view that the president was listening and was focusing too much on the advice of people like Donald Rumsfeld and some of the neoconservatives within the administration, rather than the more moderate advisers like Secretary of State Colin Powell.

And that this kind of climaxed in an argument in which the president hung up on his father, and then called him back and apologized.  And I gather things smoothed over, but this argument leaked out to other people in the administration, and other people who believed that this was kind of a symbolic of the larger rift between the moderate wing of the Republican Party and the current Bush administration. 

Which has been just been lying just beneath the surface over the last few years.  The kind of the foreign policy professionals within the Republican Party who tended to be moderates, even during prior Republican administrations like the Reagan administration, the first Bush administration.

O'DONNELL:  Well, how was it that these neoconservatives managed to gain so much power in this administration?

RISEN:  I think that's the $64 question that is still never been fully answered, and ...

O'DONNELL:  ... Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld.

RISEN:  Yes, I think what it boils down to is that Dick Cheney and Rumsfeld had this long-standing friendship going back to the '70s, maybe even earlier.  And that when they came in, they kind of dominated everything.

They set up this back channel control over foreign policy between the vice president's office and the office of the secretary of defense, that trumped almost at every turn the secretary of state and even the national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, who some of her former aides at the NSC believed had to frequently kind of keep—try to catch up to what Rumsfeld and Cheney were doing.

O'DONNELL:  Do you have any evidence that it was the vice president and the secretary of defense who pushed the president to expand his presidential authority in the wake of 9/11 and do this type of NSA spying without the court warrant?

RISEN:  Well, Vice President Cheney was clearly deeply involved in the NSA operation.  The first briefings for the handful of congressional leaders in 2002 that were held, were held in Vice President Cheney's office.

And the vice president himself, along with then-NSA Director General Michael Hayden and then-CIA director George Tenet, personally briefed the chairman and vice chairman of the Senate and House Intelligence Committees, and they kind of ordered them never to discuss this with any of their aides or any other members of Congress.  So the first briefings on this matter were held personally in Vice President Cheney's office and he led the briefings.

O'DONNELL:  Jim, I have to ask you, because there's been some questions raised about the credibility with “The New York Times” in dealing with this story.  “The New York Times” decided to hold this story for more than a year.  You knew about it, you had the reporting down pat, all throughout the presidential election—why was the story held?

RISEN:  Well, I've agreed not to—with the “Times”, not to get into that, but I would like to say that I think the Times has performed a great public service by publishing the story and I think that's the focus that deserves to be given to the Times.

O'DONNELL:  Was it because the Times was concerned that this type of an explosive revelation might alter the outcome of the 2004 election?

RISEN:  Well, as I said, I would just rather focus not on the Kennedy inside baseball of the Times.

O'DONNELL:  Well I don't understand why it's inside baseball?  Why is it inside baseball?  You're holding a story that deals with one of the most important issues in our country, and that is the expansion of presidential power where Americans may be spied on, where hearings are upcoming, the Justice Department is now going to be investigating—why should that have been a story that was held?

RISEN:  Well, as I said, it wasn't my decision.  You know, the Times made the decision.  I now believe that the focus should be on the fact that we scooped the world and that we've performed a public service by bringing it to the people so that we can have this national debate today on domestic espionage.

O'DONNELL:  You did scoop the world on this story, and now in many ways, you are threatened because the Justice Department is investigating.  Are you willing to go to jail to protect your sources?

RISEN:  Well, hopefully it won't come to that.  I'm hoping that I won't have to think about that, but I will protect my sources.

O'DONNELL:  To what end, to jail?

RISEN:  As I said, I would rather not have to answer that question now, and I'm not facing that issue right now, but I will protect my sources. 

O'DONNELL:  You do some amazing reporting about the lead up to the war in Iraq.  When we talked a little bit about the power of the vice president and Rumsfeld.  And you also say that there was a war fever inside the CIA.  What do you mean by that?

RISEN:  I think one of the problems inside the CIA right before the war was that it was very weak management controls placed on the kind of the way in which intelligence on weapons of mass destruction was being brought up through the chain of command.

And there was a sense, I believe, because the management controls were so weak, it became very easy, I think, for intelligence that seemed to corroborate the existence of WMD to go right to the top through the, you know, right to the top of the CIA and then to the White House, very quickly without much vetting, while skepticism was basically ignored.

O'DONNELL:  Is that George Tenet's fault?

RISEN:  I think there was a broader management failure at the CIA.  I don't think you can blame any one person.  But at the same time, there was clearly pressure from the administration.  It became very obvious what the right answer was, whether there was any specific decision made to make that clear, it's very difficult to tell.  I think this is kind of like workplace harassment, where it's always difficult to tell how a workplace environment develops, but in the end you kind of know.

O'DONNELL:  But do you have any evidence that because George Tenet was very well liked by this president on a personal level, they hit it off together, that he knowingly withheld information about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction or lack of weapons of mass destruction from the president, so as not to upset him? 

RISEN:  No, no, I don't.  I can't say that. 

What I can say is that there were a number of people within the CIA and I think this was very broadly felt within the CIA, that most people in the CIA assumed that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. 

But many of the key people were skeptical that the U.S. had adequate evidence of that, and some of them believed that the intelligence was weak to prove the case that there was WMD.  And those people, who were skeptical of the quality of the intelligence to prove that basic assumption that there was WMD, were either ignored or found it very difficult to get a hearing. 

O'DONNELL:  The CIA issued a stinging statement about your book, saying that every single chapter was filled with serious inaccuracies, and they called it an unfathomable and sad disregard for national security.  Are you surprised by that reaction by the CIA? 

RISEN:  Not particularly, no. 

O'DONNELL:  Are they wrong? 

RISEN:  Well, I think so.  I believe that one of the issues that we have to face is that there's been a growth in the whole secret side of the government since 9-11, a secret infrastructure that we are only now beginning to understand pieces of. 

And what is needed now is very aggressive, independent investigative reporting, to begin to look at what kinds of infrastructure have been created in the intelligence and military communities, like the NSA operation, that raise serious questions. 

O'DONNELL:  And are you proposing that infrastructure was created by this administration to further their goals in a secret way? 

RISEN:  Yes.  I think that the war on terror has been used to take on many things that the government did not try to do prior to 9-11, and in many cases, there probably is a good justification for it. 

But I think what has happened is that we have seen just an exponential growth in, as I said, a secret side of the government and the only way for the American people to understand that is through aggressive investigative reporting. 

Watch 'Hardball' each night at 5 and 7 p.m. ET on MSNBC. 

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