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If Journalists Ever Stop Uncovering Abuses of Power, We Will Lose Our Democracy

James Risen exposes more about the reality of greed, power and endless war in his new book.

Jim Risen. (Photo: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing)

Part of the Series

Unintimidated by the efforts of two administrations to force him to reveal a confidential source who disclosed the betrayal of the public by the government, Pulitzer-Prize winning New York Times reporter James Risen exposes more about the reality of greed, power and endless war in his new book, PAY ANY PRICE. You can get the book now with a contribution to Truthout by clicking here.

Perhaps the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama have been prosecuting James Risen for not revealing a confidential source not so much because “classified information” was disclosed, but rather because Risen has a long record of detailing government incompetence and misdeeds. In PAY ANY PRICE, Risen uncovers fraud and malfeasance of massive financial proportions during the war in Iraq – and the cancerous spread of the surveillance-industrial state.

The following is an excerpt from PAY ANY PRICE. In it, Risen reveals how he came to be a target of the Department of Justice for carrying out his professional responsibilities:

One day in the summer of 2007, my wife, Penny, called me to say that a FedEx envelope had arrived at our home.

It was from the Justice Department. Inside was a starkly worded letter from a federal prosecutor notifying me that the Justice Department and the FBI were conducting a criminal investigation into my 2006 book, State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration. The letter stated that the government was investigating the “unauthorized disclosure of classified information” in my book. The letter demanded my cooperation.

The letter was sent to satisfy the requirements of the Justice Department’s internal guidelines that lay out how prosecutors should proceed before issuing subpoenas to journalists to testify in criminal cases. The letter was essentially a warning from the Justice Department. Cooperate now, or a subpoena will follow.

I didn’t cooperate, and in January 2008, I was subpoenaed by the Justice Department to testify before a federal grand jury in Alexandria, Virginia, in the government’s leak investigation into my book.

I again refused to cooperate, and my lawyers and I moved to quash the subpoena.

That was the start of my marathon legal battle waged first against the Bush administration and later against the Obama administration.

As my legal battle against the government dragged on year after year, eventually making its way to the Supreme Court in 2014, I became convinced that I was fighting to protect press freedom in the post-9/11 age. But in the process, I discovered that I was no longer merely a journalist and author covering the war on terror. I had joined the many people whose lives had been upended by its excesses.

Undeniably, State of War had a huge impact — in some ways even before its publication in January 2006.

As an investigative reporter for the New York Times covering intelligence and national security, I have covered the war on terror ever since 9/11. In 2004, I discovered my biggest story of the post-9/11 age.

In October 2004, Eric Lichtblau and I wrote a story for the Times that disclosed the existence of the National Security Agency’s warrantless wiretapping program. The story showed that President George W. Bush had secretly directed the NSA to engage in domestic spying on a massive scale, skirting the post-Watergate law Congress had enacted thirty years earlier to curb the intelligence community’s domestic abuses. The NSA program was the biggest secret in the U.S. government, and many of our sources believed it was illegal, and possibly unconstitutional.

The story was explosive, and the Bush administration was frantic to kill it. Top officials at the White House, the NSA, and the CIA pushed back hard.

The White House launched an intense lobbying campaign designed to convince Bill Keller, then the executive editor of the Times, and Phil Taubman, then the paper’s Washington bureau chief, that the story would severely damage national security. Senior government officials, including then NSA director Michael Hayden, argued that the NSA program was the “crown jewel” in America’s war on terror.

That October, in the face of the mounting White House pressure, Lichtblau and I, along with our primary editor, Rebecca Corbett, met in New York with Keller to try to convince him to run the story. But Keller, accepting the government’s national security arguments, killed the story about two weeks before the 2004 presidential election between George W. Bush and John Kerry.

Immediately after Bush’s reelection, Lichtblau and I convinced Keller and Taubman to let us try again to get the story in the paper. In November and December 2004, we did more reporting and more rewriting, while Corbett did more reediting. There were more discussions with the government.

In mid-December 2004, we turned the story in again, and Lichtblau and I, along with Corbett, again argued to run it. But the story was killed once more.

The NSA story had now been killed twice by the Times, and the decision this time seemed to be final.

I was frustrated and deeply concerned that the truth about the war on terror was being covered up. Before the invasion of Iraq, my stories that revealed that CIA analysts had doubts about the prewar intelligence on Iraq were held, cut, and buried deep inside the Times, even as stories by other reporters loudly proclaiming the purported existence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction were garnering banner headlines on page one. I decided I wasn’t going to let that happen again.

In late December 2004, just after the NSA story was killed a second time, I took a leave from the Times to write a book about the war on terror. I decided to include the NSA story in my book, along with another story that the Times had killed at the request of the White House about a botched CIA operation involving a harebrained scheme to give nuclear weapons blueprints to Iran.

Because we had worked on the NSA story together, I told Eric Lichtblau that I was planning to include the story in my book. He approved.

After my manuscript was completed in the late summer of 2005, I told the editors at the Times that I was planning to include both the NSA story and the story about the CIA’s botched Iran program in my book.

They were furious. For several weeks, the editors refused to reconsider running the NSA story, which, of the two stories, was freshest in their minds and which became the focus of our tense internal negotiations.

Finally, the editors agreed to reconsider. Months of additional meetings between the editors and top government officials followed.

Finally, after an Oval Office meeting between President Bush and Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., the publisher of the Times, the NSA story was published in December 2005. It ran about two weeks before the publication of State of War. The Times story sparked a firestorm of protest against the White House and the NSA.

Meanwhile, top White House officials launched a last-minute effort to block the publication of State of War, according to the recent memoir of the CIA’s former acting general counsel. But after its release in early January 2006, it triggered a huge national debate, not only about the NSA program but also a wide range of other intelligence abuses detailed in the book. I now believe that State of War played a significant role in the history of the post-9/11 era, because it was the first book to really force Americans to seriously reconsider the basic tenets of the war on terror.

But the twin controversies surrounding the Times NSA story and State of War also prompted Bush to order the Justice Department and the FBI to launch a pair of criminal leak investigations.

Immediately after our NSA story ran in the Times, Bush ordered the first leak investigation to find out who had talked to me and Lichtblau for our story. After State of War was published, the government launched a second leak investigation into the book as well. It was this second investigation into State of War that ultimately led to my prolonged legal battle with the government.

In 2009, when the new Obama administration continued the government’s legal campaign against me, I realized, in a very personal way, that the war on terror had become a bipartisan enterprise. America was now locked into an endless war, and its perverse and unintended consequences were spreading.

And so my answer — both to the government’s long campaign against me and to this endless war — is this new book, PAY ANY PRICE.

PAY ANY PRICE is my answer to how best to challenge the government’s draconian efforts to crack down on aggressive investigative reporting and suppress the truth in the name of ceaseless war.

My answer is to keep writing, because I believe that if journalists ever stop uncovering abuses of power, and ever stop publishing stories about those abuses, we will lose our democracy.

Excerpt from PAY ANY PRICE by James Risen. Copyright 2014 by James Risen. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

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