A Marketplace of Secrets
As I walked past the photographers into the courthouse that morning in January 2015, I saw a group of reporters, some of whom I knew personally. They were here to cover my case, and now they were waiting and watching me. I felt isolated and alone.
My lawyers and I took over a cramped conference room just outside the courtroom of U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema, where we waited for her to begin the pretrial hearing that would determine my fate. My lawyers had been working with me on this case for so many years that they now felt more like friends. We often engaged in gallows humor about what it was going to be like for me once I went to jail. But they had used all their skills to make sure that didn’t happen and had even managed to keep me out of a courtroom and away from any questioning by federal prosecutors.
My case was part of a broader crackdown on reporters and whistleblowers that had begun during the presidency of George W. Bush and continued far more aggressively under the Obama administration, which had already prosecuted more leak cases than all previous administrations combined. Obama officials seemed determined to use criminal leak investigations to limit reporting on national security. But the crackdown on leaks only applied to low-level dissenters; top officials caught up in leak investigations, like former CIA Director David Petraeus, were still treated with kid gloves.
Initially, I had succeeded in the courts, surprising many legal experts. In the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, Brinkema had sided with me when the government repeatedly subpoenaed me to testify before a grand jury. She had ruled in my favor again by quashing a trial subpoena in the case of Jeffrey Sterling, a former CIA officer who the government accused of being a source for the story about the ill-fated CIA operation. In her rulings, Brinkema determined that there was a “reporter’s privilege” — at least a limited one — under the First Amendment that gave journalists the right to protect their sources, much as clients and patients can shield their private communications with lawyers and doctors.
But the Obama administration appealed her 2011 ruling quashing the trial subpoena, and in 2013, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, in a split decision, sided with the administration, ruling that there was no such thing as a reporter’s privilege. In 2014, the Supreme Court refused to hear my appeal, allowing the 4th Circuit ruling to stand. Now there was nothing legally stopping the Justice Department from forcing me to either reveal my sources or be jailed for contempt of court.
But even as I was losing in the courts, I was gaining ground in the court of public opinion. My decision to go to the Supreme Court had captured the attention of the nation’s political and media classes. Instead of ignoring the case, as they had for years, the national media now framed it as a major constitutional battle over press freedom.
That morning in Alexandria, my lawyers and I learned that the prosecutors were frustrated by my writing style. In “State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration,” I didn’t include attribution for many passages. I didn’t explicitly say where I was getting my information, and I didn’t identify what information was classified and what wasn’t. That had been a conscious decision; I didn’t want to interrupt the narrative flow of the book with phrases explaining how I knew each fact, and I didn’t want to explicitly say how I had obtained so much sensitive information. If prosecutors couldn’t point to specific passages to prove I had relied on confidential sources who gave me classified information, their criminal case against Sterling might fall apart.
When I walked into the courtroom that morning, I thought the prosecutors might demand that I publicly identify specific passages in my book where I had relied on classified information and confidential sources. If I didn’t comply, they could ask the judge to hold me in contempt and send me to jail.
I was worried, but I felt certain that the hearing would somehow complete the long, strange arc I had been living as a national security investigative reporter for the past 20 years. As I took the stand, I thought about how I had ended up here, how much press freedom had been lost, and how drastically the job of national security reporting had changed in the post-9/11 era.
I was the first reporter many of them had ever met. As they emerged from their insular lives at the CIA, they had little concept of what information would be considered newsworthy. So I decided to show more patience with sources than I ever had before. I had to learn to listen and let them talk about whatever interested them. They had fascinating stories to tell.
[ curiously i have debreifed many folks. With information rich sources, you must play a patience game. It took two years for me to fully debrief several rich story lines that have since proven invaluable. - arclein ]
In addition to their experiences in spy operations, many had been involved in providing intelligence support at presidential summit meetings, treaty negotiations, and other official international conferences. I realized that these former CIA officers had been backstage at some of the most historic events over the last few decades and thus had a unique and hidden perspective on what had happened behind the scenes in American foreign policy. I began to think of these CIA officers like the title characters in Tom Stoppard’s play “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,” in which Stoppard reimagines “Hamlet” from the viewpoint of two minor characters who fatalistically watch Shakespeare’s play from the wings.
While covering the CIA for the Los Angeles Times and later the New York Times, I found that patiently listening to my sources paid off in unexpected ways. During one interview, a source was droning on about a minor bureaucratic battle inside the CIA when he briefly referred to how then-President Bill Clinton had secretly given the green light to Iran to covertly ship arms to Bosnian Muslims during the Balkan wars. The man had already resumed talking about his bureaucratic turf war when I realized what he had just said and interrupted him, demanding that he go back to Iran. That led me to write a series of stories that prompted the House of Representatives to create a special select committee to investigate the covert Iran-Bosnia arms pipeline. Another source surprised me by volunteering a copy of the CIA’s secret history of the agency’s involvement in the 1953 coup in Iran. [ he obviously ran out of other things to talk about. human nature is wonderful - arclein ] Up until then, the CIA had insisted that many of the agency’s internal documents from the coup had long since been lost or destroyed.
But one incident left me questioning whether I should continue as a national security reporter. In 2000, John Millis, a former CIA officer who had become staff director of the House Intelligence Committee, summoned me to his small office on Capitol Hill. After he closed the door, he took out a classified report by the CIA’s inspector general and read it aloud, slowly, as I sat next to him. He repeated passages when I asked, allowing me to transcribe the report verbatim. The report concluded that top CIA officials had impeded an internal investigation into evidence that former CIA Director John Deutch had mishandled large volumes of classified material, placing it on personal computers in his home.
The story was explosive, and it angered top CIA officials.
Several months later, Millis killed himself. His death shook me badly. I didn’t believe that my story had played a role, but as I watched a crowd of current and former CIA officials stream into the church in suburban Virginia where his funeral was held, I wondered whether I was caught up in a game that was turning deadly. (I have never before disclosed that Millis was the source for the Deutch story, but his death more than 17 years ago makes me believe there is no longer any purpose to keeping his identity a secret. In an interview for this story, Millis’s widow, Linda Millis, agreed that there was no reason to continue hiding his role as my source, adding: “I don’t believe there is any evidence that [leaking the Deutch report] had anything to do with John’s death.”)
Another painful but important lesson came from my coverage of the case of Wen Ho Lee, a Chinese-American scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory, who in 1999 was suspected by the government of spying for China. After the government’s espionage case against him collapsed, I was heavily criticized — including in an editor’s note in the New York Times — for having written stories that lacked sufficient caveats about flaws and holes in the government’s case. The editor’s note said that we should “have pushed harder to uncover weaknesses in the FBI case against Dr. Lee,” and that “in place of a tone of journalistic detachment from our sources, we occasionally used language that adopted the sense of alarm that was contained in official reports and was being voiced to us by investigators, members of Congress and administration officials with knowledge of the case.”
In hindsight, I believe the criticism was valid.
That bitter experience almost led me to leave the Times. Instead, I decided to stay. In the end, it made me much more skeptical of the government.
Once it became known that you were covering this shadowy world, sources would sometimes appear in mysterious ways. In one case, I received an anonymous phone call from someone with highly sensitive information who had read other stories I had written. The information from this new source was very detailed and valuable, but the person refused to reveal her identity and simply said she would call back. The source called back several days later with even more information, and after several calls, I was able to convince her to call at a regular time so I would be prepared to talk. For the next few months, she called once every week at the exact same time and always with new information. Because I didn’t know who the source was, I had to be cautious with the information and never used any of it in stories unless I could corroborate it with other sources. But everything the source told me checked out. Then after a few months, she abruptly stopped calling. I never heard from her again, and I never learned her identity.
A top CIA official once told me that his rule of thumb for whether a covert operation should be approved was, “How will this look on the front page of the New York Times?”Disclosures of confidential information to the press were generally tolerated as facts of life in this secret subculture. The media acted as a safety valve, letting insiders vent by leaking. The smartest officials realized that leaks to the press often helped them, bringing fresh eyes to stale internal debates. And the fact that the press was there, waiting for leaks, lent some discipline to the system. A top CIA official once told me that his rule of thumb for whether a covert operation should be approved was, “How will this look on the front page of the New York Times?” If it would look bad, don’t do it. Of course, his rule of thumb was often ignored.
For decades, official Washington did next to nothing to stop leaks. The CIA or some other agency would feign outrage over the publication of a story it didn’t like. Officials launched leak investigations but only went through the motions before abandoning each case. It was a charade that both government officials and reporters understood.
As part of my legal case, my lawyers filed Freedom of Information Act requests with several government agencies seeking documents those agencies had about me. All the agencies refused to provide any documents related to my current leak case, but eventually the FBI began to turn over reams of documents about old leak investigations that had been conducted years earlier on other stories I had written. I was stunned to learn of them.
The documents revealed that the FBI gave code names to its leak investigations. One set of documents identified an investigation code-named “BRAIN STORM”; another, code-named “SERIOUS MONEY,” involved a story I did in 2003 about how the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein had tried to reach a secret, last-minute deal with the Bush administration to avoid war. Yet the government had closed all these leak investigations without taking action against my sources or me, at least as far as I know.
Even after 9/11, government officials had a limited appetite for aggressively pursuing leak cases, and Justice Department and FBI officials had little interest in getting assigned to leak investigations. They knew they were dead-end cases. A June 19, 2003, FBI memo about BRAIN STORM shows it shared the fate of virtually all leak investigations of that era. The FBI’s Washington field office “has covered all logical leads, and no viable suspect has been identified,” the memo noted. “Based upon this situation, WFO is referring this matter back to FBIHQ for additional input and/or presenting this case to DOJ for closure.”
One reason that officials didn’t want to conduct aggressive leak investigations was that they regularly engaged in quiet negotiations with the press to try to stop the publication of sensitive national security stories. Government officials seemed to understand that a get-tough approach to leaks might lead to the breakdown of this informal arrangement.
At the time, I usually went along with these negotiations. About a year before 9/11, for instance, I learned that the CIA had sent case officers to Afghanistan to meet with Ahmed Shah Massoud, the leader of the rebel Northern Alliance, which was fighting the Taliban government. The CIA officers had been sent to try to convince Massoud to help the Americans go after Osama bin Laden, who was then living in Afghanistan under the Taliban’s protection.
When I called the CIA for comment, then-CIA Director George Tenet called me back personally to ask me not to run the story. He told me the disclosure would threaten the safety of the CIA officers in Afghanistan. I agreed.
I finally wrote the story after 9/11, but I later wondered whether it had been a mistake to hold it before the attacks on New York City and Washington. Independent investigations of 9/11 later concluded that the CIA’s effort to target bin Laden before the attacks had been half-hearted. If I had reported the story before 9/11, the CIA would have been angry, but it might have led to a public debate about whether the United States was doing enough to capture or kill bin Laden. That public debate might have forced the CIA to take the effort to get bin Laden more seriously.
My experience with that story and subsequent ones made me much less willing to go along with later government requests to hold or kill stories. And that ultimately set me on a collision course with the editors at the New York Times, who were still quite willing to cooperate with the government.
YOU FURNISH THE PICTURES, I’LL FURNISH THE WAR
My stories raising questions about the administration’s claims of a link between Iraq and Al Qaeda were being cut, buried, or held out of the paper altogether.By 2002, I was also starting to clash with the editors over our coverage of the Bush administration’s claims about pre-war intelligence on Iraq. My stories raising questions about the intelligence, particularly the administration’s claims of a link between Iraq and Al Qaeda, were being cut, buried, or held out of the paper altogether.
One of the few stories I managed to get on the front page cast doubt on reports that an Iraqi intelligence officer had met with 9/11 plotter Mohamed Atta in Prague before the attacks on New York and Washington. But Doug Frantz, then the investigations editor in New York, felt that he had to sneak it onto Page 1. “Given the atmosphere among the senior editors at The Times, I was concerned that the story would not make it to page 1 on a day when everyone was convened around the table,” Frantz emailed me recently. “So I decided that it was too important to appear inside the paper and went ahead and offered it on a Sunday, a day when the senior editors weren’t often involved in the discussion.”
Then-Executive Editor Howell Raines was believed by many at the paper to prefer stories that supported the case for war. But Raines now says he was not pro-war, and that he did not object to putting my Prague story on the front page. “I never told anyone at any level on the Times that I wanted stories that supported the war,” he told me in an email.
Meanwhile, Judy Miller, an intense reporter who was based in New York but had sources at the highest levels of the Bush administration, was writing story after story that seemed to document the existence of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. Her stories were helping to set the political agenda in Washington.
Miller and I were friends — in fact, I was probably one of her closest friends in the Washington bureau at the time. In the year before 9/11, Miller worked on a remarkable series of stories about Al Qaeda that offered clear warnings about its new power and intent. In the months after 9/11, she and I both scrambled to document Al Qaeda’s role in the attacks and the counterterrorism response by the United States. We were both part of a team that won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting for our coverage of terrorism and 9/11.
But in the months leading up to the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, while Miller and other Times reporters were landing a string of big stories that dazzled the editors, I was getting frustrated that so few of my sources in the intelligence community were willing to talk to me about what they thought of the Bush administration’s case for war. I kept hearing quiet complaints that the White House was pressuring CIA analysts to cook the books and deliver intelligence reports that followed the party line on Iraq. But when I pressed, few were willing to provide specifics. Intermediaries would sometimes tell me that they were receiving anguished calls from CIA analysts, but when I asked to talk to them, they refused.
After weeks of reporting in late 2002 and early 2003, I was able to get enough material to start writing stories that revealed that intelligence analysts were skeptical of the Bush administration’s evidence for going to war, particularly the administration’s assertions that there were links between Saddam’s regime and Al Qaeda.
But after I filed the first story, it sat in the Times computer system for days, then weeks, untouched by editors. I asked several editors about the story’s status, but no one knew.
Finally, the story ran, but it was badly cut and buried deep inside the paper. I wrote another one, and the same thing happened. I tried to write more, but I started to get the message. It seemed to me that the Times didn’t want these stories.
What angered me most was that while they were burying my skeptical stories, the editors were not only giving banner headlines to stories asserting that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, they were also demanding that I help match stories from other publications about Iraq’s purported WMD programs. I grew so sick of this that when the Washington Post reported that Iraq had turned over nerve gas to terrorists, I refused to try to match the story. One mid-level editor in the Washington bureau yelled at me for my refusal. He came to my desk carrying a golf club while berating me after I told him that the story was bullshit and I wasn’t going to make any calls on it.
As a small protest, I put a sign on my desk that said, “You furnish the pictures, I’ll furnish the war.” It was New York Journal publisher William Randolph Hearst’s supposed line to artist Frederic Remington, whom he had sent to Cuba to illustrate the “crisis” there before the Spanish-American War. I don’t think my editors even noticed the sign.
In March 2003, I flew to Dubai to interview a very nervous man. It had taken weeks of negotiations, through a series of intermediaries, to arrange our meeting. We agreed on a luxury hotel in Dubai, the modern capital of Middle Eastern intrigue.
Just before we were scheduled to meet, however, the source imposed new demands. We would have to talk in the hotel’s steam room, naked. He wanted to make sure he wasn’t being recorded. That also made it impossible for me to take notes until after our meeting.
But it was worth it. He told me the story of how Qatar had given sanctuary to Khalid Shaikh Mohammed in the 1990s, when he was wanted in connection with a plot to blow up American airliners. Qatari officials had given KSM a government job and then had apparently warned him when the FBI and CIA were closing in, allowing him to escape to Afghanistan, where he joined forces with bin Laden and became the mastermind behind the 9/11 plot.
I was later able to confirm the story, which was especially significant because Qatar was home to the forward headquarters of U.S. Central Command, the military command in charge of the invasion of Iraq.
After the story ran, I felt revitalized.
That spring, just as the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq began, I called the CIA for comment on a story about a harebrained CIA operation to turn over nuclear blueprints to Iran. The idea was that the CIA would give the Iranians flawed blueprints, and Tehran would use them to build a bomb that would turn out to be a dud.
The problem was with the execution of the secret plan. The CIA had taken Russian nuclear blueprints it had obtained from a defector and then had American scientists riddle them with flaws. The CIA then asked another Russian to approach the Iranians. He was supposed to pretend to be trying to sell the documents to the highest bidder.
But the design flaws in the blueprints were obvious. The Russian who was supposed to hand them over feared that the Iranians would quickly recognize the errors, and that he would be in trouble. To protect himself when he dropped off the documents at an Iranian mission in Vienna, he included a letter warning that the designs had problems. So the Iranians received the nuclear blueprints and were also warned to look for the embedded flaws.
Several CIA officials believed that the operation had either been mismanaged or at least failed to achieve its goals. By May 2003, I confirmed the story through a number of sources, wrote up a draft, and called the CIA public affairs office for comment.
Instead of responding to me, the White House immediately called Washington Bureau Chief Jill Abramson and demanded a meeting.
Condoleezza Rice stared straight at me. I had received information so sensitive that I had an obligation to forget about the story, she said.The next day, Abramson and I went to the West Wing of the White House to meet with National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. In her office, just down the hall from the Oval Office, we sat across from Rice and George Tenet, the CIA director, along with two of their aides.
Rice stared straight at me. I had received information so sensitive that I had an obligation to forget about the story, destroy my notes, and never make another phone call to discuss the matter with anyone, she said. She told Abramson and me that the New York Times should never publish the story.
I tried to turn the tables. I asked Tenet a few questions about the Iranian program and got him to confirm the story, and also provide some details I hadn’t heard before. The only point he disputed was that the operation had been mismanaged.
Rice argued that the operation was an alternative to a full-scale invasion of Iran, like the war that President George W. Bush had just launched in Iraq. “You criticize us for going to war for weapons of mass destruction,” I recall her saying. “Well, this is what we can do instead.” (Years later, when Rice testified in the Sterling trial, a copy of the “talking points” she had prepared for our meeting was entered into evidence, though I don’t remember her actually saying many of these things.)
Anti-Bush liberals saw the Valerie Plame case and leak investigation as a proxy fight over the war in Iraq, rather than as a potential threat to press freedom.
Suddenly, as we were standing at the source’s front door, everything spilled out.
The Bush administration was engaged in a massive domestic spying program that was probably illegal and unconstitutional, and only a handful of carefully selected people in the government knew about it.
“When somebody gives you that kind of access and says lives will be at risk, you take them seriously.” — Bill Keller
Abramson said she told Keller that “they would look like idiots” if they still were holding the story when it appeared in my book.
The official pulled me close and whispered, so quietly that none of the others in the room could hear, “Check out when Ashcroft was sick.”
The War on the Press
One former CIA officer recalls that managers in his unit warned employees not to read “State of War”; doing so, they were told, would be like committing treason.
When my lawyers called the Justice Department, prosecutors refused to assure them that I was not a “subject” of their investigation. That was bad news.