< It's All On the Line


Friday, February 06, 2009

BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. If any doubts remained that the Bush Administration authorized spying on American citizens, former National Security Agency analyst Russell Tice may have put them to rest late last month on MSNBC.


RUSSELL TICE: The National Security Agency had access to all Americans’ communications. It didn't matter whether you were in Kansas, you know, in the middle of the country and you never made any foreign communications at all; they monitored all communications.


BROOKE GLADSTONE: The agency had access to all Americans’ communications, but Tice said they targeted individual journalists and news organizations. Many had suspected as much. In 2006, a group of journalists tried to sue the NSA to find out if they were being spied on. The suit was dismissed. One reporter who was sure he was being monitored was Lawrence Wright, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11. His first clue came from one of his sources in the intelligence community who told him he'd read a summary of a phone call Wright had made to the Middle East. Later, two federal agents showed up at his door with questions about another phone number he'd called.

LAWRENCE WRIGHT: And they wanted to know, first of all, who was it? I looked it up on my Palm Pilot and it belonged to a solicitor in London who represents some of the Jihadis that I had been interviewing for my book. And then they began asking if the person on our end of the call, my end, was named Caroline. And that’s my daughter’s name. And they asked, you know, is her name Caroline Brown? And I said, no, she’s, you know, a student at Brown. But I said, her name’s not on any of our phones. How do you know this information? Are you listening to my calls? And they just shut their briefcases and left. I thought, as an American citizen, that the law was that they would not be listening to my calls unless they had a warrant. And I thought it was very unlikely that they would be able to obtain one because I'm a legitimate reporter. But a year later, there was a New York Times story breaking the news that there were illegal wiretaps on American citizens, and I realized then what was going on.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: So was there anything in what Russell Tice said that surprised you?

LAWRENCE WRIGHT: No. What disturbed me is the law, as it stood, was that when American citizens or American persons – that including anybody who’s in America at the time – when they're overheard in a conversation, that portion of the conversation is supposed to be what they call “minimized” – in other words, redacted. So I might be having a conversation that is monitored with a source. If that source is a foreign source, then the American intelligence community can report on it. But my part of it, supposedly, is taken out. What Tice was saying is that where American citizens are involved, they would put it into a discard pile, but, he said, that was the pile that they were monitoring. And that really concerned me, because his allegations included the idea that they were monitoring not just individuals but entire news organizations.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: And what would be the point?

LAWRENCE WRIGHT: Well, for one thing, the reporters are doing the work that American intelligence has failed to do. Here’s what worries me about it. I might be writing about al-Qaeda one week and I might be writing about the government the next week, our government. How do I know what the intelligence community is listening for and what use they're going to put it to? These revelations came out, you know, about the illegal wiretapping at a time when the Bush Administration was leading a campaign against the press. ABC News, for instance, broke a story, I think, in 2006 that they had been warned by government sources to change all their cell phones because they and The New York Times and The Washington Post were all being closely monitored for possible sources that they might have inside the intelligence community. I'm worried about not just my own privacy but I'm worried about my sources.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you think that that chilling effect you felt was felt among journalists who cover government and foreign policy?

LAWRENCE WRIGHT: Well, I've talked to other colleagues and we've discussed, you know, how do we behave in this? Do we behave like terrorists? Do we go out and, for instance, buy phone cards and discard the phones after we have an interview? What really concerns me is that I think it’s had a chilling effect on the sources themselves because they're more jeopardized now than they were in the past.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: We were a little surprised that there was so little coverage and less outrage over Tice’s allegation. Why do you think that is?

LAWRENCE WRIGHT: I think in part it’s because Congress has essentially approved and legalized the formally illegal actions of the Bush Administration.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: When the journalists brought their lawsuit back in 2006 and it was dismissed, what they were charging the government with doing was illegal, but you’re saying that now, in 2009, because of acts of Congress, it would be legal?

LAWRENCE WRIGHT: It’s a little unclear. You remember last year all the thunder and lightning that was going on in Congress about the illegal wiretaps, and then the laws that they approved essentially rubber-stamped what the Bush Administration had done. There’s another consideration if you’re a reporter or a news organization and you want to bring suit because you feel like your privacy’s been invaded. Then the government is entitled to discovery. That is, they can begin to look through your phone records and find out who else you've been talking to. Let's say that I'm doing an article for The New Yorker. The fact-checkers also call my sources. Well, they also call Sy Hersh’s sources. So where does it stop? Will all of our sources be uncovered in the pursuit of a lawsuit that we have very little chance of winning? You know, there’s not much incentive for a person like me to go out and sue the government if it’s going to have the result of throwing my sources in jail, and perhaps me as well.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: The Obama Administration has been very explicit about wanting more transparency in government and about reestablishing the rule of law. Do you think this is less likely to happen?

LAWRENCE WRIGHT: I don't see anything happening in this. I happened to just file a couple of Freedom of Information suits on a story that I'm working on, and they were blanketly rejected. I just don't think that the government is moving in the direction that the president has indicated.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Larry, thank you very much.

LAWRENCE WRIGHT: It’s a pleasure, Brooke. Thank you.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Lawrence Wright writes for The New Yorker and is the author of The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11.