U.S. Intelligence: The Inside Story

U.S. Intelligence: The Inside Story

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Intelligence

United States

Council on Foreign Relations
New York, NY


DANA PRIEST: Okay. I think we're going to start now, so if everyone could take their seats and turn off your cell phones and BlackBerries and other monitoring devices that you might have, because our guest is Jim Risen. This is on the record, and I'm going to introduce Jim and then talk with him for a little while and then turn it over to questions.

Jim Risen is one of my competitors -- I'm with The Washington Post, he's with The New York Times -- and he's renowned among reporters as being never among reporters. (Chuckles.) Whenever there are news conferences or big events that reporters who cover national security -- Jim is always working in the background somewhere, which always bothers us, because we can't keep track of him. (Chuckles.) And so you can see the fruits of that in his book.

He's currently the -- a national security correspondent with The New York Times. And he was a member of the team that won the Pulitzer in 2002 for the coverage of September 11th and terrorism. He's the author the book that we will be discussing tonight, "State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration." But this is not his first book. He co-authored "Wrath of Angels" and "The Main Enemy: The Inside Story of the CIA's Final Showdown with the KGB."

He began his intel career about 10 years ago, when at the LA Times, as an economic correspondent, he was getting awfully bored, looking for something else to do. And they said, "Well, you can cover intelligence sort of on the side and also the State Department on the side." And between the State Department and the CIA, the CIA won out -- (chuckles) -- no big surprise. And that's how he started his career at the LA Times and from there jumped to The New York Times after, I will note, The Washington Post tried to hire him first -- (chuckles) -- and that didn't work.

So I wanted to begin, before we get into the substance of the book, just to talk with you a little bit about even why you decided to write a book, given how much you were writing for The New York Times. And why did you find a need to go deeper and do something in book form?

JAMES RISEN: Well, you know, both of us were covering this stuff after 9/11 -- by the way, I just want you all to know what a fantastic competitor Dana is. And she scares the hell out of everybody at The New York Times with her stories.

I just felt after 9/11 we were covering everything so fast, and there was so much happening; I felt like this was the first time in my career as a reporter when you really felt like you were really part of history in a very immediate sense that I'd never felt before as a reporter. And I felt that we were just skimming the service, as the whole news business, and I just had this constant feeling that I was drinking from a fire hydrant trying to write about this stuff.

And after a couple of years of just running, as we all were, flat out, I just realized there was way -- there was so much happening that we didn't understand that I felt like I really had to step back and try and understand what was happening, especially after the war in Iraq. Iraq really, I think, changed the whole dynamic of how Washington is working, because there was a great -- not complete, but there was a lot of consensus in the government and in Washington in general, the political establishment, about Afghanistan and the about the early days of the war on terror, but I think Iraq broke that consensus eventually. And we began to hear from people in the intelligence community and throughout the Bush administration in 2003, 2004 and then last year this growing frustration and anger and dismay at what was happening in the government. And I felt like it was very hard to reflect in daily journalism. It was something that I felt I could try to do better in a book.

PRIEST: So everyone expects a book -- and yours definitely fulfills this -- to go deeper and explain behind the scenes, behind the headlines. But trying to do that, especially in intelligence, can be very difficult, because superficial reporting is easier in a difficult situations. Did you find people more willing to talk to you because you were writing a book; things wouldn't come out right away, or --

RISEN: Some, yeah. Yeah. Yeah, I mean, that was interesting, because I think there were people -- definitely people who were willing to talk about certain things that had happened a couple of years ago that didn't want to see them come out right away. And I'm sure that's happened with a lot of book authors. I've heard that from other authors, that that has been the case. And I know that was the case in some of these things that -- they felt -- there's a slight different kind of a relationship you develop with people when you're working on a book, because you can take more time developing a relationship, because it's not -- you don't have to turn it around fast.

PRIEST: So if you were to talk about the motives, as best you can determine, of people who -- you know, obviously they're often talking to you about things they aren't supposed to talk to you about; it's probably illegal for them to talk to you about, in some cases. What are the range of motives that you found for sources who nonetheless want to help you out?

RISEN: I could ask you exactly the same question.

PRIEST: Well, I'm the presider, so -- (chuckles) --

RISEN: You know, it's the same thing that any reporter covering this stuff goes through, which is it varies from person to person. And a big part of the job that you have is to kind of vet your source, before you even go further with that person, to figure out what kind of person they are. First, you want to know, are they who they say they are? Did they really have the access, if they act like they had the access to the information? Are they credible, you know? And then the big question is, what is their motivation beyond, you know, are they credible?

And I found -- it varied. In the case of the NSA story, I think it was a genuine belief that the Bush administration was doing something illegal and that they did not want to be a part of something that was potentially unconstitutional, and they felt that this was important for the people to know about. Other things -- other people I talked to were just -- were deeply angered by the way -- the conduct of the administration on the war in Iraq and the lack of planning; the whole issue of WMD; a whole range of motions. But on the NSA one, it was truly the clearest case of pure whistle-blowing I've ever seen in my career as a journalist. People who truly believed - and they were shocked by what they knew about.

PRIEST: Do you think -- I find that a lot of people believe people who go to the media hate the administration. You know, they're Democrats or liberal Democrats, even. Is there anything that you can say about folks at the agency in terms of -- we know that the military tends to be more Republican.

RISEN: Right.

PRIEST: What about the CIA?

RISEN: I think at the CIA -- as you know, the CIA -- this is a broad overgeneralization, simplification -- I think the CIA rank and file hated Bill Clinton with a passion. They thought he was feckless on foreign policy. They hated John Deutch even more than they hated Bill Clinton, and they kind of liked George Tenet because he got them more money and helped them around.

I would categorize the average -- if you had to ask me what the average CIA person is, I would say they're a moderate Republican. They liked George Bush I, and they thought they were going to like George Bush II. And they kind of like the -- I think they see themselves in kind of the centrist foreign policy tradition of the Republican Party. And I think they've been deeply dismayed by the direction that foreign policy in this administration has taken and especially on Iraq, where the professionals were really not listening.

PRIEST: So you brought up the NSA story, and there's obviously some lingering questions about putting together that story. And one of the obvious questions is, as the story pointed out, you had a lot of this information, although it insinuates you didn't have it all, a year before you published it.

First, can you talk about -- does the Times have a process for considering national security concerns on the part of the administration that you can describe in a generic way? And then can you throw any more light on the year pause?

RISEN: No, I can't. (Laughter.) I can just say that I think that the decision to publish it was a real public service and that all this other talk about what happened was inside baseball and that it really doesn't matter. And I think that, you know, it's a funny world today, with all the bloggers and the media critics, and everybody's got a take on the media. And the thing I've always thought is, you know, what would have happened if Woodward and Bernstein had 500 blogs on their case in 1972, you know, after they'd written five, 10 stories about Watergate, and you had -- what if Arianna Huffington and Matt Drudge were on their ass every day?

PRIEST: (Laughs.)

RISEN: They never would have gotten to the bottom of anything. And if you had Bill O'Reilly and -- I mean --

PRIEST: Is it because they wouldn't be paying attention to the target and then be off paying attention --

RISEN: I believe it's paralyzing to pay attention to all that and that you've just got to ignore it and just keep going. And so that's what I'm trying to do.

PRIEST: So on the question of a process, can you just take it away from your own story, and if there's any way to explain --

RISEN: I don't know that there's any specific process. I just think, you know -- I just think that, you know, they had -- you know, that we handled this is in a way that was professional, and we ended up in the right place. So that's about all I can say.

PRIEST: Okay. To talk about the book for a minute, I -- instead of going chapter by chapter or subject by subject, I found some of the most interesting things -- the personalities involved and the motives of those people.

So could you summarize how you, after -- at the end of this process, saw George Bush and George Tenet? First Bush, his involvement with the issues that you lay out in the book -- you kind of reaffirm this idea that he's in a bubble, but --

RISEN: Yeah, I don't -- I guess maybe that's -- that would be too strong. Maybe I didn't articulate it very well in the book. I guess what I would say is that I think Bush is not an idiot. He's not a fool. He's in charge. I think my view from talking to a lot of people is that he sets a grand vision, a strategic vision of where he wants the administration to go, and then he leaves it up to others to make tactical and -- decisions and implement things.

And I think the difficulty and the problem that he's encountered with that is that he has given so much leeway to people like Rumsfeld and Cheney and others that, in the end, their tactical decisions have a major effect on the substance of the strategy. And the case in point, obviously, is Iraq, this lack of postwar planning.

From everything I've -- people I talked to -- he made it very clear, when the Defense Department came to the White House and said we -- essentially, they wanted -- not in so many words, but it was clear that what they wanted was a turnkey operation with Ahmad Chalabi in charge of -- you know, they were going to fly in a new government, more or less. And Bush said no, we're not going to do that, we're not going to -- as one person said, the president repeatedly made it clear to Rumsfeld and others he wasn't going to put his thumb on the scales of Iraq.

Now -- so he made it very clear he wanted democracy. But beyond that, he left -- I think he left far too much up to what he might consider the details, but I think the details ended up being the substance of the policy. You know, he had this working group at the -- this interagency group at the NSC and other State Department and other groups formulating ideas for -- and guidelines for postwar planning, and then allowed Rumsfeld to just ignore it.

PRIEST: How much did you get involved with the issue of WMD and whether or not it existed? Is that something he relegated and just entrusted those --

RISEN: I think -- yeah, I think on WMD he just -- I think -- well, I think it's more of a nuanced case here. I think that in the six months or so after 9/11 there was a fierce debate in the Bush administration over Iraq-al Qaeda ties, not about WMD. Wolfowitz and Feith and others at the Pentagon wanted to -- I think they saw the Saddam-9/11 or the Iraq-al Qaeda tie as the silver bullet that would trump everything else. And so they were pushing hard for that, and the CIA pushed back. It was the one issue I think they pushed back on.

And so by late 2002 is when WMD came to the fore. And I don't think it was the central issue until the months right before the invasion. And I think it was hurried and the whole process was kind of botched. I don't blame Bush for that. I think -- and I don't think he lied about anything. I think -- and I don't think anybody lied. I believe they truly thought there was WMD there. I think that they assumed it.

The problem was that the CIA allowed themselves to get captured by groupthink; that they said, "Okay, we assume there's WMD there, and so we're going to dismiss all of the indicators to the contrary as part of Saddam's denial and deception program."

PRIEST: And you say that the CIA was captured by a war fever, that it just assumed it's going to happen, get on board. How do you get to that point if your mission is to, you know, be the truth teller?

RISEN: That's a question that I don't know the answer to -- why this happened. I mean, I can kind of lay out the symptoms. And it's difficult to -- to me, it was like -- it's like workplace harassment. It's like sexual harassment or racial discrimination in the workplace. You know, it's always a he said/she said type thing. Political interference with intelligence is in the air, but how do you prove it? And I don't think you can prove it. To me, it is -- but the end result was a climate in which people knew what the right answers were, and I don't know how that exactly happened.

I don't think anybody knows. I don't think the people in charge know how it happened. I think they would still deny that it happened, but it's clearly happened. And I think it was -- it's one of those great things that -- of interpersonal dynamics that's really hard to point to any one piece of evidence --

PRIEST: Well, you do mention specifically that, you know, there's some -- there's a dismissal of dissidents, anybody who questioned.

RISEN: Yeah.

PRIEST: That dismissal comes from somewhere. Tenet? His deputy, perhaps?

RISEN: Yeah, it's difficult to tell exactly. I mean, what I think happened was that no one -- I don't think anyone lied. I think everyone believed, in the leadership of the Bush administration, that there was WMD. What they did not -- what the dissidents were saying -- they were not saying there's no WMD. What they were saying was, the evidence is weak, and we don't have very good intelligence on this.

PRIEST: But it's so weak. In the case you would -- like the Curveball case --

RISEN: Right.

PRIEST: -- in which they don't even bother to check the source --

RISEN: Right.

PRIEST: -- now how do you get to that point by then, when --

RISEN: I think at that point it was so late in the process that the leadership said, you know, the train's already left the station. And I remember one source telling me that he got the distinct impression that the leadership was saying: They're going to war anyway. It doesn't matter. We'll find it when we get there. And I think that was the -- by this whole process of -- that's why I think the debate over the Iraq-al Qaeda ties plays into the way in which WMD was handled, because I think for the first six months or so after 9/11, as I said, when they were focused on Iraq-al Qaeda, and they had this big fight, then they switched to this thing where they thought there was greater agreement and consensus within the government on -- and that process, because they had just, I think, just been focused on other things, was compressed. And by that time -- by the time you focus on WMD in the summer and fall of 2002, you know, it's very clear the administration's already on their way to war. And I think that message was already clear at the CIA -- you know, "Hey, they're going to war anyway."

PRIEST: So in what you're saying, you're rejecting those who say that there was a cabal that pushed falsified information, the whole Office of Special Plans that we read about in the Defense Department.

RISEN: Right.

PRIEST: And I assume that you looked for evidence of that and you just didn't --

RISEN: Yeah. No, I think, as I say, that it's a more subtle argument. I think that there were people -- as I said, everyone more or less assumed that Saddam had WMD, but there were people who said we don't have very good intelligence on that. And those people were not listened to, and they were shunted to the side.

PRIEST: Talk about Charlie Allen's efforts for a minute and describe, if you would, who he is.

RISEN: Yeah, there was a -- I think Charlie Allen is this guy who was in charge of kind of an arcane office that -- his main job was really to look for gaps in intelligence collection, things around the world that the CIA or the whole intelligence community was not doing a particularly good job on. And one of the things that I was told he looked at was Iraq WMD. And he came -- they came up with this idea of sending relatives of Iraqi weapons scientists back to Iraq, people who were in the West, to actually ask their relatives, you know, "What are you doing now? Are you still working on WMD?"

And one of the people involved in this program was a doctor from Cleveland, a woman Iraqi exile. And she went back and met with her brother, who had been in the nuclear program. And he told -- and she went back to Baghdad in September of 2002. And her brother -- you know, the CIA sent her, and she asked all these questions about the nuclear program. And her brother looked at her incredulously and said, you know, "Don't you know? There is no WMD. There is no nuclear program."

And she came back to Washington to meet with the CIA and told them, you know, "He says there is no nuclear program." And they had other relatives who did the same thing. And this intelligence - they filed these reports, and they didn't go anywhere, because the CIA, I think, believed that this was all part of the denial and deception program of Saddam. And I think that was the way in which, as I said, contrary evidence was seen as Saddam's -- this brilliant plan by Saddam to fool us. And anybody who came up with something that said there is WMD, that information went right to the top very rapidly.

And so that was the -- I think that's the subtle thing that is lost in the partisan debate over this, where they say Bush lied or Bush -- or whatever, is -- that's just a red herring. I think it's a much more complex thing, where it was this climate that was created where people began to just kind of ignore -- I think what they lost really was the intellectual discipline on how to conduct intelligence analysis.

PRIEST: So one more question, and then we'll open it to everybody else. The last chapter is called, "The Rogue Operation" and deals with Iran and starts out with this startling revelation that I've never seen anywhere else: that they made a mistake and ended up rolling up or getting rolled up a number of their contacts in Iran.

So my question is, since Iran is so center, seemingly, to what they might be looking at now, can you judge now how damaging that mistake was to the sources that they have in Iran still today or don't have anymore?

RISEN: Well, I know the CIA has disputed the level of damage from that mistake. They don't dispute that the mistake happened. Since my book came out, they've disputed how much damage it did. I think what it shows is that they admit that that mistake was made and that it was enormous.

I think they -- from everything I've been told, they have very little insight into the Iranian nuclear program. And they really, I think, as your paper reported some months ago, that -- it was a related story -- I think it was Dafna Linzer -- about how the NIE -- about saying it was another 10 years. I think if you say that they could have a nuclear program sometime in the next 10 years, that means we don't really have a clue.

And I think that's essentially where they are. They are -- and I think it's a real problem now, given this track record on Iraq. How do you present credibly to the world any argument based on intelligence again about WMD in another country that starts with the letter I? (Soft laughter.)

PRIEST: (Chuckles.) All right. Countries that start with I.

Now this -- consider this the appetizer for the State of the Union, because -- (laughter) -- the book has every large issue that Bush is going to talk about today.

Okay. Let's start up here.

QUESTIONER: Yeah -- (name and affiliation off mike). For those of us who haven't read it, can you tell us what are -- what you think are the key points of your book?

RISEN: Well, I think the theme that I -- I mean, one of the problems writing a book like this is that it is -- when you get so close to the information, how do you develop a theme? And the thing that I think is the theme of it is -- I think after 9/11 you had a problem where there was a lack of checks and balances on the way in which foreign policy and national security was developed. You had, I think, over the 30 or 40 years -- really, since World War II, you'd had -- the American foreign policy was always kind of pushed towards the center by the bureaucracy, by career professionals, the interagency process, just by lobbyists, by the American interests around the world.

Whenever there was a big issue, it would get chewed over and studied and reviewed. And eventually, we'd kind of be -- you know, even whether it was Republican or Democrat, over time, you know, we would kind of be somewhere in this range that was more or less moderate on how we dealt with foreign policy. I mean, there were obviously exceptions.

But I think after 9/11 -- one of the things someone told me which really struck me was that what happened was, the principals were meeting every day. And normally on an issue, a big issue, the principals, meaning the Cabinet level type officials, would only meet maybe once every six months on an issue. And during the interim period, there had been this enormous interagency process where everybody would chew over things and fight over things. And the end result would always be that policies would be kind of pushed back toward the center.

But when you had Rumsfeld and Rice and all these people meeting every morning or every day for however long that frantic period was going on, I think that had a major effect on the way in which policy happened. And the bureaucracy, the career experts, couldn't catch up.

So I think between 9/11 and the beginning -- and the invasion of Iraq, policy was on the fly, and it was being made verbally, basically, within small groups. And the professionals didn't really know what was going on. And I think that led to a veering off in different directions of policy that were -- some people believe were radical.

PRIEST: Over here.

QUESTIONER: Thank you. One comment. I was at a conference in the U.K. about a year ago, and Brits and Americans were asking how we both blew it on the question of WMD. And your thesis would be very much what the Brits think. There was tremendous pressure from Number 10 to come up with what they wanted to hear, just as there was from the White House.

RISEN: Right.

QUESTIONER: My question is, did you see the roots of our current approach toward torture and interrogation? And where did that come from?

RISEN: Well, I think -- I mean, the issue is -- goes back, I think -- something that I really struggled with is -- and I couldn't get a satisfactory answer -- you know, it's something that Dana has written extensively about, probably better than anybody in Washington. The issue of how did the -- you start in early -- late 2001, early 2002 with a decision by the president and by people around him to let the CIA take the lead on capturing and interrogating al Qaeda prisoners and to keep them secretly overseas, away from the U.S. judicial process.

And I think somehow that we ended up with Abu Ghraib, with National Guardsmen from Western Maryland. And how that migrated from one place to the other is the story that we are still struggling with, I think. But I think it was clearly a continuum that we are still trying to fill in the blank with, don't you think? I mean --

PRIEST: Yeah, and I also think there was a decision that we're at war, and war powers give you -- as you've seen in that torture memo, the August 1, 2002, memo -- the commander in chief can disregard things. And that's what his lawyers were saying, and that's what they wanted to do anyway.

RISEN: Yeah.

PRIEST: That really freed their hands. And they, unlike -- they pushed the authority down into the field, where field people who had no real experience as interrogators, because the agency hadn't done that for so many years --

RISEN: Right. Right.

PRIEST: -- were now being -- I think you're right -- on verbal -- a lot of times on verbal okay --

RISEN: Right.

PRIEST: -- being faced with grave situations and knowing that they'd be covered if they pushed it to an extreme.

RISEN: The question I think none of us -- we're all struggling with is, how did you get from a CIA operation to something that the military is involved with, for the first time in modern history, where they're ignoring the Geneva Convention?

PRIEST: Yeah.

RISEN: And that is the leap that -- you know, we've kind of reported -- everybody in Washington has kind of reported both of those things, but we don't have that leap right there, you know.

PRIEST: Up here, in the very beginning --

QUESTIONER: I'm Pete Peterson. Some of us who are not experts find this NSA situation a bit of a puzzlement. We hear the experts come to the council and explain that the existing laws have immense latitude and flexibility; you can get clearance for almost anything, you can even do it retrospectively and so forth. And yet the administration takes the position of really not using the existing legislation.

What do you think are the real reasons for their point of view? I could give you at least two options. One, this is just a raw continuation of a presidential power grab, just generically. Or are there limitations in the existing legislation that do make the implementation of that law difficult in practice? I'm really confused about what the explanation is. And if so, what are those problems?

RISEN: That's an excellent question that we have struggled with ourselves.

And I think it's a mix. I think it's both, frankly. I think that there are -- I think FISA was created -- the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act was -- 1978 -- was created in an era in which the telecommunications industry was completely different than it is today. Today it's far more globalized and much more complex, and I don't pretend to understand it fully. I mean, that's about the level of my knowledge. I know that it's more complicated today than it used to be.

And so I think there was -- for a long time, my impression is, there was a long -- for a long time, NSA has wanted new powers, way before 9/11, wanted new -- they were frustrated with the limitations that FISA put, given the changing nature of the global telecommunications network. I think that was one thing.

The other thing was, as you said, a belief in the administration -- as you said, the lawyers had this belief of broad presidential power.

And the third factor, I think, is the immense technical capabilities of the NSA go way beyond anything that most people understand. And I'm just starting to understand it. They have - I think it's still -- probably still true they have more computing power at Fort Meade than anywhere else in the world. And they have the ability to do almost -- you know, to manipulate the data and the information in a lot of very interesting ways.

And my belief is that one thing -- one reason they did not go to Congress and one reason they did not ask the courts for approval on this is that the program is very large and is doing a lot of very voluminous things, which we've talked about in the paper and in my book some.

PRIEST: I thought I found a clue to that question in the book when you talked about NSA having a checklist of suspects, I guess, and that people that were on that list were considered -- that alone amounted to enough of probable cause to go after them --
RISEN: Right.

PRIEST: -- even though that checklist was not vetted by anyone else, right?

RISEN: Yeah. That's one -- that's -- I think the problem that people came to me about -- one of the things that led people to come to me was this idea that they couldn't believe that the administration was letting NSA officials decide probable cause. And so that was one of the real -- that's where it gets back to this issue of - I think it was more -- as much presidential power and prerogative as anything else.

PRIEST: Okay, how about in the back, in the orange scarf? Or orange -- yeah, okay. (Chuckles.) Can't really --

QUESTIONER: Hi, Dana. Wendy Luers, Foundation for Civil Society.

Going from the connection between CIA and military, in your articles on rendition and the CIA planes going around, there has been a lot of talk in the Balkans about using Camp Bondsteel in Kosovo as one of the places where they were landing. Can either one of you verify that at all, and talk further about the utilization of not only foreign airports, but our military bases abroad?

PRIEST: Well, in the lists of -- there are now lists, a combination of Euro-control lists, plane-spotter lists. We have tail numbers now. You know, the CIA didn't do a great job. Their cover staff, you know, should all be fired from that tradecraft. (Laughter.) Really, once you got onto this, it wasn't that hard to find the rest of the planes.

So now you have all of Europe trying to look for the planes, and as a result we have a lot of information. There was not -- I haven't seen Kosovo. But there are military airports, and I think some of the records aren't true, you know, that some of them are falsified in some way, and it's hard to -- it would be hard to really figure out which ones are.

As for the military airports, yes, they use military airports quite a bit. However, I think as this controversy has bubbled up, less and less. And I know for instance they've changed their -- the black sites, those secret prisons. Now they have a rule: no black sites near soldiers. And that started actually when they got -- they had a little black site that was on Guantanamo and was discovered, and they left Guantanamo. And I think the military really doesn't have anything to do with this because they've got their own problems. So no black sites near soldiers. Yes use of military airfields still, but I would guess less so now.

And there's no firm evidence that I've seen that Kosovo was used. Kosovo has its -- Bondsteel has its own military prisons in which the military rules, and I think a lot of reporters in Europe sort of mix the two up. But I wouldn't close the door totally.

RISEN: The one thing I would add about the prison, CIA prison, issue is that I think it's one of the things that has angered and frustrated career CIA people more than anything else. Because I kept hearing repeatedly -- I'm sure you've heard this a million times -- people said, you know, I don't recognize the agency I joined.

PRIEST: Yeah. In fact, the feeling that the CIA has lost its espionage role and taken on a large paramilitary role, in part because, you know, Tenet got kudos from Bush on that. You could cross people off on the cards that Bush would keep on the high-value detainees. You could show progress. But it's a different agency.

Let me go one more time back in the back, way back here. Yeah. Yes.

QUESTIONER: I want to go back to the L word, to the lying question. And I want to try to ask this in a nuancy way, and I'm really sort of asking your -- your view of this as you wrote the book, and your view of this as how the media handles the question.

I don't think -- I'll say it personally -- I personally never thought that what you pose as the red herring -- as the lie ever was a lie -- it never occurred to me that people in the administration said let's make up a story and then let's carry that through. It seemed to me the issue that it's a -- that you seem somewhat dismissive of, was -- occurred as the issue shifted from whether there were connections to the -- as they shifted from that -- and by the way, my view of that is, the agency simply got exhausted, and that was -- they fought one fight and sort of won it, and then they said they weren't going to win another one. But as the issue shifted to the WMD question, what we know throughout that entire period was that there were deep, deep disputes within the intelligence community about what was real, what was not real, what was truth, what was not truth.

We also know that throughout certainly the latter half of that year -- and I'm talking about 2002 -- every senior member of the national security team of the Bush administration used the nuclear cloud analogy. And that in itself strikes me as pretty damn close to a mistruth. But it also seems to me that with respect to the nuclear issue, a president is given such automatic belief -- after all, who -- I mean, we can quarrel with what our president says about taxes tonight, but you can't -- but who absolutely knows, except someone who has a -- that therefore, that whether or not the story got made up, there was certainly a -- it's fair to say there was a considerable mistruth implied about degree of certainty on the second half of that year. And I'm curious about what you thought about it at the time.

RISEN: Well, I agree -- I mean I think -- I guess what I would say is you see all the symptoms of what you're saying, but you don't see the cause. You can't prove -- you can't prove -- you see the systems of the politicization deep in the bowels of the CIA when you talk to people, but what you don't see, and what I cannot find, is where that started.

And I think, as I said, it's like workplace harassment. I mean, where does that come from? It's in the air. It's a group dynamic that I don't think you can blame on any one person. And that's really -- I struggled with that, and I still struggle with it. And maybe you had something.

PRIEST: But are you also asking -- so that's a big generalization -- I mean an exaggeration -- of what, if you knew what they knew, you could say. So it's an exaggeration, and you had a media question in there somewhere, right? Like did the media --

QUESTIONER: (Off mike.)

PRIEST: Yeah.

QUESTIONER: When the most senior members of the national security apparatus of an administration use the nuclear cloud analogy --

RISEN: But I think they believed it. This is what I'm getting to.

QUESTIONER: It would have been a different thing -- I don't mean to monopolize -- it would have been a different thing if someone had said, you know, there are 10 issues about weapons of mass destruction that are currently under dispute. We the administration don't know the truth one way or another, but we believe the nuclear cloud analogy. That would be one thing to say to the American people. But to say it without a single qualification for months strikes me as a different kind of question. And you all knew that there were disputes going on at the time. Anybody who had any connection with the intelligence community knew that there were disputes --

PRIEST: So do you have a question in that one? And would you write it? (Laughs.)

QUESTIONER: It didn't strike me that the media did a terribly good job during the period of planning.

RISEN: The basic point, just to reiterate, I think, is that I really don't believe that they went out publicly and lied. I mean, they may have -- they certainly had political talking points in which they shortened things and overemphasized things.

I still believe -- because it got down to this -- I mean, the reason I say this is because the people I talked to were deep down in the organization. There's no way the president was talking to these people, and they weren't hearing from George Tenet. They were talking to their own people. And so I just think that there was a groupthink that captured the whole government that is a phenomenon that's very difficult to understand.

PRIEST: But you're also asking, did it capture the media? And when I -- and having been a reporter trying to work on that, we wrote at the Post -- and the Times did, too -- we wrote a lot of stories about dissent, but -- and many of them, you know, I think, were underplayed in our pages. And we've done a lot of internal -- you know, we had a lot of internal arguments about that. But they were in -- they were in the paper.

But you're faced with as reporters not being able to do what you haven't been able to do, which is finding a smoking gun after all these months. So then you're still weighing judgment. And the stories that say, Bush says this and he's exaggerating, but there's some dissent, they're almost not -- they don't weigh as much in one sense as the president and the Cabinet coming out and making these dramatic statements because we can't -- we're not -- we're can't be firm about it, we can't be clear.

RISEN: I think what happened in the media reflected what was going on inside the intelligence community, that the people that -- the dissidents knew that there was something, that the evidence wasn't very strong. How do you prove a negative? You know, I wrote some of those stories about people skeptical of intelligence -- you know, Walter and I and others -- you and other people.

PRIEST: Right.

RISEN: But how do you prove -- how do you prove a negative? That's the question. And so the -- it was really a matter within the -- I think it was within the CIA -- that if you had curveball or you had somebody else, you've got something specific that you can take to the afternoon meeting. But if all you do is you come to the meeting and say I don't believe what this guy's telling you or I have problems with that intelligence, they'll say, okay, what do you have? And I think that's what happened.

PRIEST: Yeah.

QUESTIONER: Hi, I'm Richard Solomon of Public Perspectives at Columbia University.

I wanted to bring you a little more up to today if I could. Because clearly, as I read your book over the last weekend, it's a pretty unremittingly negative view of what happened in the last few years, probably justifiably so. But as you talk to sources today, do they see we really learned a lot; that the organizations are different, the players are new, we learn from our mistakes and therefore we're in a better position than we were? Or where -- where we now are; do people still -- are they still afraid to tell the truth upward? So would you talk a little bit about where you think our intelligence efforts are today relative to two to four years ago?

RISEN: Someone who was recently in Iraq for the CIA told me that they are not allowed to go outside the Green Zone because they are afraid of getting kidnapped, and that to me says everything you need to know about the CIA in Iraq. Maybe you've heard differently, but --

PRIEST: Well, you know, what about --

RISEN: I think that -- well, my point is --

PRIEST: What about Iran? What about Porter Goss' leadership?

RISEN: Porter Goss is no longer the leader of the intelligence community. And I think that's what you -- we had maybe the worst combination of things happen in the fall of 2004, where you had -- I mean, I'll say something politically incorrect here -- which was you had a group of widows from 9/11 take control of the legislative effort to reform the intelligence community. And they were fooled, I think, by the Republican leadership into thinking that adding another layer of bureaucracy was going to solve the problem. And the idea that the DNI is any better than the DCI I think is a joke.

PRIEST: Well, what about the CIA that has to analyze -- you know, take a RAND for the moment. Do you think that they've put -- either that they don't have groupthink as a result of this experience, or they've put things in place that will guard against another Iraq experience?

RISEN: It's possible that they've done that recently. I don't see any evidence of it. I don't -- but I don't know. I mean, maybe in the last few months, maybe they -- maybe they'll surprise me. But I don't see any evidence. I think they are more cautious. I mean, I think the -- their reporting on Iran, I've been told, is more cautious than it was on Iraq. But that doesn't seem to change the political debate within the Bush administration. I think basically the CIA's standing within the government is at a low, maybe an all-time low, because their credibility is shot.

PRIEST: Can you say -- is there anything positive to come out of Negroponte's position and appointment? Is he going to do anything that needed to be done?

RISEN: He was a --

PRIEST: Stand up to Rumsfeld, for example?

RISEN: Well, that's the question. I don't think we've seen that yet. I think if I was Negroponte, what I would want is a very public confrontation with Donald Rumsfeld, and he hasn't done that yet. And I think until he has a public fight with Rumsfeld, we won't know where -- what the standing of the DNI is going to be.

PRIEST: Yes.

QUESTIONER: Roland Paul, I'm a lawyer.

Maybe we could put this in -- I'd welcome your perspective about WMD, if I may kind of give a little bit of the -- in one place you slid between chemical and biological weapons on the one hand and nuclear on the other. I don't think that the administration has ever said -- but maybe Cheney making one slight slip -- that they had nuclear weapons. They never said that. They said they had chemical and biological. And so the -- and what we now --

RISEN: Before the war in Iraq?

QUESTIONER: What's that?

RISEN: You mean before the war in Iraq?

QUESTIONER: Yes, yes.

RISEN: They said they had -- they said they had all of them.

PRIEST: They were reconstituting their nuclear program.

RISEN: Yeah.

QUESTIONER: They didn't say they had nuclear weapons.

RISEN: Oh, no, they said they were reconstituting.

QUESTIONER: Yeah, that's what I mean. And what we know about their nuclear program now wasn't that far from what they were saying. In other words, we know they had lowly enriched uranium. We know that they had buried -- you know, Mahdi Obeidi had buried everything he needed to reconstitute it. He wrote in your paper that with the snap of Saddam's fingers we could have a nuclear program. And on the chemical and biological they were wrong, but there is a lot of evidence that he could quickly reconstitute it. And some authorities -- one is Hans Blix -- and the other thing in that regard was -- well, actually your colleague, Bob Woodward, in his book -- if you read on page 422 of Woodward's book, the president -- he says, well, what about WMD? And the president says, well, he could have reconstituted them quickly. And I remember David Kay -- I'll be done -- David Kay, in his testimony before the Armed Services Committee, said that Saddam and his two sons went three times to their scientists and said, how quickly can we reconstitute them? And they said quick.

RISEN: I don't think there is any question that if the sanctions had been lifted, if the world had decided to ignore Iraq for a few years, he would have redeveloped nuclear -- WMD of some kind. That's clear. I think -- I don't think there is any doubt that he was waiting for the sanctions to be lifted. The question, although, of course is, did he have the resources to really do that if the time came.

QUESTIONER: Hi, I'm Ted Sorensen. This has been terrific.

I want to ask about the source that is the most important to me, which happens to be The New York Times. I am an admirer, and of you also, Mr. Risen. But a long time ago when I was in government, the Times, as you might imagine, came to me and said that their role required them to know all the truth and facts about the government.

Now I'm on the other side as a reader, and I'd like to be sure that that is still the role of The New York Times. (Laughter.) And I would like to know whether you or the Times is either used by either the CIA or the White House, the State Department or others, or if the chain of intelligence ever gets a little mixed, and sometimes the Times is the source for the general atmosphere inside the CIA or the department instead of the other way around?

RISEN: I think every reporter I've ever known gets used every single day. We all get used by our sources. That's what the business is. We get used, and we try to figure out how we're getting used, and whether we can turn it around and take advantage of that. I mean, that's the process. People use us and we try to use them, and it happens to every single reporter.

PRIEST: How about standing up in the back over there?

QUESTIONER: I still don't understand -- (off mike, comes on mike) -- I still don't understand why you held the story at The New York Times for a year. We all sit around and discuss it. And can't you shed a little more light than you did shed on that?

RISEN: No. (Laughter.)

PRIEST: Well, can I try this? You've been accused of holding it for political reasons, that it was too close to the election. Can you just take that off the table?

RISEN: I can just say that I think it was the right decision to publish it when we did.

x x x Yes?

QUESTIONER: I'm David Vidal. I used to be a reporter; I'm now with the Commerce Department. I have a question that relates to, I guess, reporting ethos. I've been in meetings here for the past several weeks, and I've heard things like fear among Democrats, fear in the country. You talk about war fever and an environment and groupthink, as if all of these are individuals and basically parts of our government; but none of them are people. Are you telling us or would you have us believe that you are actually reporting that some of these momentous effects that have affected our lives have no causes, that there is no accountability, and that all we can trace for this is fevers and environments and groupthinks?

RISEN: No, all I can say is that I don't know the full answer. I mean, I'm sure there is an answer. I mean I don't know, it may take 20 years for all of us to figure it all out. All I can say is that what I've been able to determine so far are the symptoms. And knowing human nature, I think it's unlikely that you can ever trace it to one source. I don't think there is a smoking gun. I don't think there was a meeting where Dick Cheney and George Bush said, well, let's make the CIA lie to us, or let's tell a bunch of lies. I just don't think that happened. I think there was a series of incremental actions and decisions throughout the government that led to what happened.

And I think the overarching decision was that President Bush wanted to invade Iraq, and everything flowed from that. But beyond saying that, I can't prove anything beyond that.

PRIEST: Let's try again in the back.

QUESTIONER: Chris Isham with ABC. There's been quite a bit of confusion about exactly what the NSA program did or did not do. I wonder if you could just clarify what your understanding is at this moment, both from your reporting in the book and subsequently, what the president authorized, and what the program did?

RISEN: Well, we're still trying to report further on that. I think the -- my understanding is, and what we've written so far, is that there was a decision by the president to allow the NSA to get back-door access to a series of major telecommunication switches into the U.S. telecommunications network, essentially getting right into the bloodstream of the telecommunications and e-mail in and out of the United States, and that those switches were kind of the gateways in and out of the U.S. for a lot of traffic; and that they were doing this without search warrants; and that this allowed them to both eavesdrop on individuals without search warrants and to conduct broad data-mining operations within e-mail and telephone and cell phone conversations in and out of the country .

And one of the questions we still haven't answered is what kind of abuses they were of this program. I mean, that's something that everybody has been speculating about, but we don't have any strong answers on.

QUESTIONER: What do you mean by data mining?

RISEN: Well, that's one thing we're still trying to understand fully. What we believe was that there was something called pattern analysis, where they are able to look at the frequency of calls from one number to another, the time of day of calls, the duration of calls between different numbers, and to use that kind of information -- and for e-mail traffic as well, and to use that information to develop analysis of likely relationships between people.

QUESTIONER: All of it overseas to the U.S.

RISEN: Yes.

PRIEST: But do you think once they got access to the switches, they're not looking at everything they have access to, right? They have certain things they're going to.

RISEN: That's what they say. That's what they say, and that's what -- the problem is, there is no oversight of the program.

PRIEST: Okay, jump in, third time, red shirt.

QUESTIONER: Jim Dingeman from -- (inaudible) -- World Report. I'd just like to ask you what your opinion is of the whole impact of this unitary executive branch theory that we've seen bandied about with Judge Sam Alito, which in particular has been deployed in regard to the revelations of you and your colleagues in December about NSA surveillance. And what do you think it raises in terms of the questions of freedom of the press and the ability of the press to inquire into these issues without having the Damocles Sword of the executive branch on their heads?

RISEN: (Laughs.) Well, you could answer that as well as --

PRIEST: No, you're -- (laughs).

RISEN: I mean, that's the problem we face covering national security, is you've got one party running the government, and so there's -- you can have an expansive view of presidential power when your party controls Congress and most of the courts.

PRIEST: I also think that -- I think Bush revealed a lot when he started to defend the NSA program. He revealed a lot about their legal thinking. And it's not only his commander-in-chief powers at a time of war, but it's also that Congress did pass a war resolution which, despite the Democrats' claim, does not use the word "Afghanistan." It says everybody responsible for 9/11. And if you follow that trail, that gets you to al Qaeda worldwide. So it's much broader than they're willing to say now.

So he believes, and his government lawyers have gone forward and -- I'll give you another example, ban on assassinations. If you are in a self-defense mode and you have a list of terrorists that you know want to commit war against the United States, that's no longer assassination; it's targeted killings that are permitted under this idea.

And it goes through a whole lot of other things. So a lot of them we have not been able to report on, but there's a whole slew of things that they are able to do in the special operations world, in the clandestine service, in NSA, probably in the NRO. And they all rest on a state of war and then bolstered by the congressional war powers resolution.

I kind of wonder why, if this is so controversial in Congress now, someone doesn't try to say, "Well, that's not what we meant," but try to say that in some actual -- you know, with some legislative language or sense of the Congress or whatever. But they are not trying to do that. So I think Congress sort of wants to have it both ways too.

RISEN: I think one of the other issues is something you hinted at, which is that in a war on terrorism, the Pentagon and the Bush administration have argued that the entire world is a battlefield; that the global war on terror, GWOT, means that everywhere is a battlefield.

And if you carry that to a legal construct, then that means that any place in the world is open to U.S. military action, and that would mean also U.S. intelligence action. And so that changes the whole dynamic. If you think -- and I think that's where Rumsfeld has gotten this enormous running room, that you can -- that the Pentagon can operate anywhere in the world and declare that this is part of the preparation of the battlefield for future combat operations.

PRIEST: Including the United States, where you see this growth in domestic military activity.

Okay, we have time for one more question, and then I'm sure Jim will stay around and answer more.

QUESTIONER: Yes, I'm Dick Garwin. And I would welcome a little less passive voice here. That is, the CIA let itself be captured by groupthink. And Dana Priest said, well, we haven't found a smoking gun. But that doesn't mean there isn't a smoking gun, and you say maybe 20 years more. So let's try to parse that a little bit. Suppose we didn't have, hadn't had Douglas Feith's Office of Special Plans and Cheney. Would the capture by groupthink have happened, do you think?

RISEN: Yes, I think -- well, it's an interesting question. As I said, I think the effect of the -- basically what the Pentagon -- the neocon fight against the CIA was not about WMD. It was about the Iraq-al-Qaeda link or the 9/11-Saddam link. It was about Prague. It was about, you know, the stuff that the Weekly Standard keeps beating a dead horse with.

And I think the effect of that was not so much on that as an issue within the government. The effect, I think, was to compress the WMD argument into a few months at the end of 2002, and so that you had less time. It kind of sucked the oxygen out of the time you could have had to argue WMD, so that by the time you began to really argue WMD, by the fall of 2002, the troops were already flowing to Iraq -- I mean to Kuwait, and the train was already leaving the station.

And so there was the sense within the CIA that, man, this argument is really late; you know, look at all those brigades flowing to Kuwait. We already had this argument. We already argued over Iraq-al-Qaeda; now can we really argue over this? So I think that was the effect of the Office of Special Plans, was kind of this unintended consequence, which I think is pretty interesting.

PRIEST: Okay. Thank you all for coming. And thank you. (Applause.)

 

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