Breaking the NSA Eavesdropping Story

Steve Inskeep talks with New York Times reporter James Risen about his new book, State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration. Risen first broke the news about the National Security Agency's secret eavesdropping program, and says it's illustrative of the administration's behavior in the war on terror.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

We've been talking to one of the reporters who revealed eavesdropping without warrants by the National Security Agency. Now you can eavesdrop on a conversation with him. James Risen of The New York Times wrote a book called "State of War." He's not saying much about the leak of classified information which led to an investigation. Risen does say the story started with officials who were deeply concerned.

Mr. JAMES RISEN (Author, "State of War"): It was people who--it's not one source; it's several sources--people who were deeply disturbed by what was happening. Eric Lichtblau, my colleague who's been reporting on this, and I both started hearing about it separately at about the same time from different sources. And then we began to compare notes and to move forward.

INSKEEP: How did you decide when to publish what you published? Because you had it in your hands for about a year, you've said, before you decided to go forward.

Mr. RISEN: Well, that was up to the paper, and I can't discuss the deliberations about that. You know, all I can say is it wasn't my decision. It was the paper's decision, and I supported the decision.

INSKEEP: Can I get you to explain your best understanding of the nuts and bolts of what the National Security Agency has been doing? Who's calling from where, who's listening and how are they doing that, as best you've been able to determine?

Mr. RISEN: Well, what the government says they've been doing is eavesdropping on telephone and e-mail communications into and out of the United States without search warrants.

INSKEEP: General Michael Hayden, who was the head of the National Security Agency when this program began and is still a very senior intelligence official, has told reporters that there is always one party to a conversation who is identified as being al-Qaeda or linked to al-Qaeda. Do you believe that?

Mr. RISEN: I don't know. I mean, that's what they say. One of the things that I learned--that we learned that was of a concern to some of the people who knew about this program was that the NSA was able to decide on its own who to listen to. So there was no outside approvals required even within the Bush administration of who the NSA was listening to. So it's very difficult to really know exactly who they did listen to at this point.

INSKEEP: Does the eavesdropping in your mind fit a broader pattern of the way that the Bush administration has pursued the war on terror?

Mr. RISEN: Yeah, I think so. I think one of the themes in my book that I try to talk about is the kind of--after 9/11, I think there was a breakdown in the normal checks and balances in the US foreign policy community. Principals in the Bush administration, the top people, kept meeting every single day. And they kept setting policy in these meetings so rapidly that the career professionals in the interagency reviews that tended to moderate things couldn't catch up. Now some people would say that's good; you had to respond rapidly, and you had to move quickly and you had to get rid of the risk aversion that we'd seen before 9/11. And that's all true, but the question is how far from one side to the other do you swing?

INSKEEP: You also write of the intelligence that the Central Intelligence Agency gathered before the war in Iraq. It's been widely known that there was no intelligence good enough to show that there was weapons of mass destruction, but you seem to go a little bit farther here, writing that there was actually intelligence gathered that seemed to fairly conclusively say, through source after source after source, that there was no nuclear program, at least, in Iraq.

Mr. RISEN: What I write about was an interesting program in which the CIA asked a series of relatives of Iraqi scientists to talk--to find ways to talk to their relatives. And I focus on one woman from Cleveland, and her brother was in the--had been in the Iraqi nuclear weapons program in the '80s and early '90s. And she went back to Iraq at the request of the CIA and talked to her brother. He just said, you know, `We haven't had a nuclear weapons program since the end of the Gulf War when it was abandoned.' And she went back to America and told the CIA that. And she was--you know, they didn't really believe her. They thought that she was just getting fed disinformation by her brother, and they kind of ignored her and the other relatives who've said the same thing.

INSKEEP: Did White House officials in the Bush administration send signals to the CIA about the kind of intelligence they wanted to get?

Mr. RISEN: Oh, yeah. I mean, think it's difficult to say whether anybody ever said specifically, you know, you've got to find this stuff for us. But the message became very clear that they had WMD. And so it became very easy to dismiss reports that there is no WMD by saying, you know, that's just disinformation by Saddam.

INSKEEP: You write about some of the ways that the administration and its people in the intelligence community who were working on Iraq worked to get the rest of the CIA on board...

Mr. RISEN: Right.

INSKEEP: ...the idea of an invasion of Iraq. What were the steps that were taken?

Mr. RISEN: Well, there was--I write about a couple of meetings, one in Rome, I think, in 2002 in which one CIA officer who participated in the meetings called it, you know, kind of a secret pep rally where people from headquarters came out and told them that it was, you know, kind of time to get on board and that they should go out and start to try and gin up support within the foreign intelligence services of the countries they were serving. And the problem was that the CIA professionals in the Middle East were unenthusiastic about the war going in.

INSKEEP: Well, given the skepticism within the CIA in particular toward this war, who was it that ultimately pushed the agency to provide the intelligence to back up the assertions that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and to generally support the program? Was it Vice President Cheney? Was it President Bush? Was it George Tenet, who was the director at the time?

Mr. RISEN: It's difficult to tell. I think it's hard to quantify. It's always difficult to tell who said what to who in these cases. But I think there was kind of a `Go' fever.

INSKEEP: Well, here's what I'm wondering. A lot of people have asked if Vice President Cheney in particular went over to the CIA and pressured intelligence analysts or leaned on them in some way. You seem to write of a situation where Cheney hardly had to, because George Tenet, the director of the CIA, was at least as enthusiastic about gathering whatever evidence that the administration wanted.

Mr. RISEN: Well, he seems to have created an atmosphere where material could go right to the White House.

INSKEEP: I want to end where your book begins, if that's all right.

Mr. RISEN: Mm-hmm.

INSKEEP: George W. Bush and his father have been seen as two very different presidents. What have you found out about the relationship between those two men?

Mr. RISEN: Well, I was told that--by some very good sources that there was friction between them over the president's willingness to listen to some of the neoconservatives and to kind of shut out some of the more moderate forces. One incident where they argued over the telephone and President Bush hung up on his father and then called back and apologized. It was kind of symbolic of a split between a very conservative administration and the more moderate wing of the kind of--the Republican professional foreign policy people have been upset over the last few years about the Bush administration.

INSKEEP: James Risen is the author of "State of War" and a reporter for The New York Times. Thanks very much.

Mr. RISEN: Thank you.

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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State of War

The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration

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