Transcript for Reporting on the NSA - Eric Lichtblau

Jim Fleming: We've all been following the stories about Edward Snowden. About Hong Kong and Hawaii, wiretaps and leaks. But for all the Hollywood-worthy drama just how new is this story really? After all, the media have been covering the NSA surveillance program for years. In 2005 New York Times journalist James Risen and Eric Lichtblau published a series of articles about the surveillance without warrants of some Americans’ international phone calls and emails. They won a Pulitzer price for their reporting. In 2008 Steve asked Lichtblau just how secret the NSA's warrant-less wiretapping program had been.


Eric Lichtblau: This was probably the most secretive program in the Bush administration. The White House itself has acknowledged that, and I think that's the main reason that the White House fought so hard to keep it secret once we in the New York Times found out about it in 2004.


Steve Paulson: So you're saying that even a lot of people in government, maybe even in the Bush administration itself did not know about this program?


Lichtblau: Absolutely, and that's one issue that I get in to in some detail in the book: is the idea that there were people with the highest security clearance in the government that did not know about the program. And that caused a good deal of angst and tumult within the administration. Within the FBI there were agents and senior officials who stumbled on to the program within about 12 hours of its inception in October 2001 and it caused a brief but pretty anxiety-producing firestorm within the FBI because people were quite worried that the NSA was potentially breaking the law. The NSA traditionally and legally was not allowed to target Americans in wiretapping and it was soon clear at the FBI that that was exactly what the NSA was doing.


Paulson: Now presumably, if there is a government agency that is going to be looking for terrorists in the United States you would think that would be the FBI, right? I mean I guess it raises the question of why was the NSA even conducting these wiretaps.


Lichtblau: Exactly. I mean traditionally that would have been the FBI's domain and that's part of the reason why that caused such an early firestorm at the FBI because the NSA was not in the business of targeting Americans and this was a radical departure from past practice. I think the explanation for that is that the NSA had the hardware. The NSA had the spy satellites to make this happen and the FBI did not. And the administration, particularly Cheney’s office, realized that and wanted to utilize that. And that’s in some way quite an understandable conclusion. The way they went about that was in some ways quite questionable because the usual checks and balances were ignored in large part.




Paulson: So this wiretapping program was basically initiated out of Dick Cheney's office. They were the ones who were directing this whole operation.


Lichtblau: Yeah, absolutely. This was a Dick Cheney operation from the start. It was Cheney who went to George Tenet at the CIA and went to Mike Hayden at the NSA and said "what more could the NSA be doing"? The answer that he got was that given the current state of the law there was nothing more. That the NSA's role had to stop essentially at the border when it came to targeting Americans. Once the program was authorized by the president, Cheney pushed for the incredible secrecy that surrounded this. Limiting the congressional briefings in a way that some law makers now believe violated the law by excluding members of the intelligence committees. So this was Cheney's baby from the start.


Paulson: Well it's striking reading your book that there were some very high placed government officials who questioned this wiretapping program. Larry Thompson the deputy attorney general, the head of the immigration and naturalization surface.


Lichtblau: Mm-Hmm, Yeah, I tell this story in the book. On the very day of 9/11, of Jim Ziglar, the head of INS, sitting at the FBI's emergency command center and questioning, quite aggressively, the policies that some of Ashcroft's advisors were about to embark on in terms of questioning, doing door-to-door questioning of Muslim neighborhoods. What he saw as sweeps of Muslim neighborhoods like in Dearborn Michigan for instance, and even searches. And Ziglar stood up and said that the INS would not be part of this. That he saw this as unconstitutional, he saw this as something close to what the British had done to colonial America in terms of warrant-less searches and he would not be a part of it. So that, from literally the first few hours there was this instant tension between the threat of 9/11 and the due process that we had come to expect.


Paulson: This story is fascinating on a number of fronts. One is that you and your fellow investigator reporter Jim Risen at the New York Times had this very explosive story and then your newspaper sat on it for about a year or so. I mean they didn't run this story. Why?


Lichtblau: Well, I think you've got to remember partly the time that we were in. This was in 2004, we're only at that point two-plus years out of 9/11 and the shadow of 9/11 I think was still very powerful and the administration made a strong and urgent plea that if this story were to run it would do grave damage to national security. It would imperil a program that was vital to protecting the country and stopping another attack. And I think any responsible editor would certainly listen closely to arguments like that. I'm not sure in that climate, back in 2004, that any major paper would've run that story. You know, certainly, as reporters--reporters are usually the first one to say “Run the story, it's not our names that our on the masthead.” The editors have a different responsibility than we do as reporters, and the editors felt differently.


Paulson: Well didn't President Bush himself essentially threaten the New York Times and say "look, if you run this story and there's another big terrorist attack on American soil, you, the New York Times, will have blood on your hands".


Lichtblau: Yeah, that was the message that was given to our publisher and our editor in the final plea not to run the story in December of 2005. The idea that if there's another attack the New York Times would be sitting next to the administration in front of Congress explaining how did this happen? There’ll be blood on your hands.


Paulson: That's pretty chilling if you're the publisher and you're the editor, you've got to think long and hard about that.


Lichtblau: It's absolutely chilling; I think it would be irresponsible for any editor to ignore a plea like that. Absolutely.


Paulson: Now, the larger question about all of this is how much the public has a right to know about what the government is doing and to some degree I think partly your argument is that investigative reporters are stand-ins for the public. I mean that's how we're going to find out about a lot of this stuff. Where do you come down on that, I mean, what we should know what our government is doing?


Lichtblau: We'll I think that there are certainly limits. I'm not one of these people out there who thinks that the public has to know everything the government is doing, that there can't be anything, that the government is an open book. There are several programs that in our reporting we have come across, several secret programs, that we simply stopped reporting because we thought this was something that crosses the line. There's a clear national security interest and whatever the public interest in is fairly minimal. So we said, "you know what? This is not even worth perusing". So, you know, whereas our critics say "oh the New York Times will print anything". I think if they knew how our jobs work they realize that wasn't true. But at the same time I do hold the view that public scrutiny is an antiseptic that can often prevent a lot of the problems that come up later and that the fourth estate does have an important role to play in exposing problems. I mean, that's been a fundamental pillar of our country.


Fleming: That was New York Times journalist Eric Lichtblau telling Steve Paulson about his coverage of the NSA's wiretapping program.

Comments for this interview