NEW YORK –- New York Times reporter James Risen was surprised Sunday when former National Security Agency chief Michael Hayden said he doesn’t see a need for the government to prosecute Risen for refusing to reveal a source.
“I’m glad to see he feels that way these days,” Risen said in an interview Monday with The Huffington Post. “I’m not sure how long he’s felt that way.”
Hayden's comment on CBS's "60 Minutes" suggested a grudging respect for the work of Risen, an investigative reporter who has challenged Bush and Obama administration rationales and strategies for an “endless war” in response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Risen was one of a the few reporters to seriously scrutinize the Bush administration’s case for war in Iraq, even as his own paper downplayed that skeptical coverage. The next year, Hayden and the Bush White House successfully pressured the Times not to publish Risen and colleague Eric Lichtblau’s blockbuster report on the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping program. The Pulitzer Prize-winning story finally appeared on the front page in late 2005, just weeks before Risen planned to reveal it in a chapter of his book, State of War.
But it was another chapter in Risen's January 2006 book, on a bungled CIA operation in Iran, that sparked the leak investigation that’s dogged Risen for seven years, with the reporter saying he’d go to jail before revealing a source.
In his latest book, out Tuesday, Pay Any Price: Greed, Power, And Endless War, Risen continues to report on the breakdown of law, the billions of dollars wasted, and the government’s ends-justify-the-means strategy for a war on terrorism, which, as another war in the Middle East escalates, shows no signs of ending.
“ISIS is a serious group, but it’s not an existential threat to the United States,” Risen told HuffPost. “You would think, though, after 13 years, we’d begin to become more skeptical of these threats and the people who do all this fearmongering.”
Risen likened public perception of Islamic extremists to the early days of the Cold War. “Back then they thought of Russian troops as 10 feet tall and about to march down Broadway,” he said. “Today, we think of Islamic terrorists as 10 feet tall and about to walk down Broadway.”
Such exaggerated fears, in Risen's view, have helped create a climate that permits anything, if it's ostensibly about fighting terrorism. Risen said national security became "deregulated" after 9/11, with the established rules and regulations dismissed as outdated.
“We’ve had a national security crisis that’s led to some bizarre outcomes,” Risen said. “So what I was looking for were bizarre stories that told what I think is the basic theme of the book: Crazy is the new normal in the war on terror.”
In the book, Risen reports on waste and abuse resulting from the war on terror and describes several shadowy figures who've profited from it. He delves into how a former medical technician convinced the government he could decode hidden al Qaeda messages in Al Jazeera broadcasts and how a legal investigator on a 9/11 lawsuit was secretly doing intelligence work for the government. Risen also reveals how billions in cash flown from the U.S. to Iraq have gone missing.
The post-9/11 period, he said, was "like a gold rush" in which anyone claiming to be a counterterrorism expert could win a large government contract.
Risen concludes the book by looking at government whistleblowers who tried rooting out government abuse and overreach, such as former House Intelligence Committee staffer Diane Roark.
Instead of leaking to the press, Roark went through proper government channels to voice concerns about domestic spying, yet still found her house raided by the FBI. Risen said Roark’s “case is a classic example of why [Edward] Snowden had to do what he did,” a reference to the former NSA contractor who left the country to leak documents to the press.
Snowden has said he didn’t initially leak the documents to the Times because the paper sat on the 2005 NSA scoop. Risen said he “was very disappointed” Snowden didn’t come to the Times and chose to provide documents to journalists Laura Poitras, Glenn Greenwald and Barton Gellman. Still, Risen praised the work of the journalists Snowden turned to. He also interviewed Snowden in December and has reported on NSA documents originally provided to Poitras.
Risen said he considers Snowden a "whistleblower" and doesn't know why some others in the press "are afraid to use that word."
In public appearances, Risen has harshly criticized the Obama administration, which has used the Espionage Act to prosecute more leakers to the media than all previous administrations combined. Risen told an audience at Colby College last week that Obama “hates the press.” He told The Huffington Post that the president “is the greatest enemy of press freedom that we’ve had in generations.”
Risen said that “the one thing that the government doesn’t want to see is more aggressive investigative reporting,” but journalists should nevertheless continue digging into what's going on.
“That’s why I wrote this new book,” he said. “This is my answer to the government.”