James Risen’s NSA Spy Scoop in the New York Times: Risible Or Right On?

Intelligence reporter James Risen co-wrote the Times’ December 16 front-page scoop about government spying on terror suspects in the U.S. without first obtaining search warrants. As was later revealed by Drudge (but not by the Times), the story seemed rather conveniently timed to coincide with his upcoming book, “State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration”).

Risen’s book is out now, and Katie Couric interviewed him for the Today show Tuesday morning, where he said of his many anonymous sources:

“…many of these people had grown up in the environment of knowing that in order to get to listen in on Americans you had to get a court order and they saw something was happening in which that was not being done. That there were, that the courts were being skirted, the Congress, that the laws had not been changed. And they believed that for whatever reason the Bush administration was skirting the law. Now that'll be something that we can all debate about whether or not they did skirt the law? But that was the reason the people came forward. They believed that something was going wrong."

Risen told Time magazine this week that his paper "has performed a great public service by printing [the story], because this policy is something the nation should debate." Risen also told Time: "The frustration over the way things have been going in the Bush Administration had built up within the government. There were a lot of people who were increasingly uncomfortable with what was going on."

Last Friday, the Justice Department opened an investigation into who leaked the details of the National Security Agency to the Times, meaning that Risen and co-writer Eric Lichtblau may be forced to name their sources.

The paper responded with a front-page story Saturday by Scott Shane, “Criminal Inquiry Opens Into leak In Eavesdropping -- Domestic Spying Report.”  The initial online version of the headline was even blunter, stating: “Justice Dept. Opens Inquiry Into Leak of Domestic Spying.”

But as the Powerline blog reminded the paper, “Contrary to the language used by the Times, the program is one of foreign intelligence surveillance; it is not a domestic spying program.”

Barney Calame, the Times’ notoriously pro-paper ombudsman, actually gets tough on what he sees as stonewalling by top editors at the paper over the Risen story. While praising the piece itself, he accuses the paper’s top editors of “stonewalling” over explaining the decision to report the story. From Calame’s Public Editor column on Sunday:

“The New York Times's explanation of its decision to report, after what it said was a one-year delay, that the National Security Agency is eavesdropping domestically without court-approved warrants was woefully inadequate. And I have had unusual difficulty getting a better explanation for readers, despite the paper's repeated pledges of greater transparency. For the first time since I became public editor, the executive editor and the publisher have declined to respond to my requests for information about news-related decision-making. My queries concerned the timing of the exclusive Dec. 16 article about President Bush's secret decision in the months after 9/11 to authorize the warrantless eavesdropping on Americans in the United States."

For more examples of bias in the New York Times, visit TimesWatch.

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