CBS's Smith Shares NYT's Risen's Distress at NSA Anti-Terrorism Operation

CBS’s Harry Smith on Wednesday’s “The Early Show” saluted New York Times reporter James Risen, who in a December 16 front-page article exposed an ongoing National Security Agency (NSA) intelligence-gathering operation aimed at thwarting al Qaeda attacks in the U.S., and whose new book, “State of War,” amplifies his concerns with the way the U.S. government has pursued the war on terror.

Shortly after 7:30 this morning, Smith touted his upcoming interview with Risen, advertising him as “the author of a new book the Bush administration does not want you to read.” A few minutes later, he introduced Risen by asserting that the NSA’s surveillance program “has shocked many Americans.” Smith used sinister language to describe the NSA program:

“There’s an organization called the National Security Agency which is a huge, basically, spy organization that’s been authorized by the government to -- really has carte blanche -- to listen in on phone conversations, to tap into e-mail information on any American citizen without having to go to a court to get a warrant, to check this out.”

Unlike NBC’s Katie Couric, who interviewed Risen for Tuesday’s “Today,” Smith did not ask Risen about the New York Times’ questionable holding of the story for a year before finally publishing it just as the Senate was considering the renewal of the Patriot Act, nor did he ask Risen about the possible axe-grinding motives of his sources.

But Smith did at one point play Devil’s advocate, asking Risen about the idea that the President had all of the authority he needed: “Well the President says listen, our job, my job is to protect American citizens, and at all costs I need to make sure another 9/11 doesn’t happen, don’t I have the authority, what’s the principle involved here the explain, the doctrine of self defense, can’t I use that, don’t I have the authority to do this on my own?”

Risen’s answer was a textbook example of the liberal media’s elitism: “Well I think that’s the debate that we can now have because this is public. What the President was doing was secretly doing this without having any ability for Americans to know about it and to discuss whether or not this is legal. In the end, we may as a country decide this is proper, but there was no debate about this prior to this.”

In other words, Risen is arguing that no matter what the harm or potential harm to national security, the New York Times is to be thanked for exposing the operation so that a “public debate” can begin. By that logic, a malcontent colonel who thought Eisenhower’s plans for D-Day were a mess would have been justified in going public. Or, if a Manhattan Project scientist was upset at the idea of dropping the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, he should have found a willing newspaper to help him blow the whistle.

At the end of the interview, Smith was effusive, calling Risen’s the “most disturbing book I’ve read in a long time.”

Here’s the full transcript of the January 4 exchange, as taken down by the MRC’s Michael Rule:

Harry Smith: “The startling revelation that the National Security Agency has been responsible for a wide-ranging domestic spying operation has shocked many Americans. Now the New York Times reporter who broke the story, James Risen, has a new book detailing how and why our government started eavesdropping on its own citizens without warrants. It’s called “State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration.” Jim Risen is with us this morning, good morning.”

James Risen: “Good morning.”

Harry Smith: “We need to go back and explain a little bit because this news has been coming out, people may not exactly understand. There’s an organization called the National Security Agency which is a huge, basically, spy organization that’s been authorized by the government to, really has carte blanche to listen in on phone conversations, to tap into uh email information on any American citizen without having to go to a court to get a warrant, to to to check this out.”

James Risen: “Right. The NSA is actually one of the largest intelligence agencies, perhaps the largest intelligence agency in the government. It’s far larger than the CIA. It’s something that a lot of people don’t realize is uh it has enormous computing power in fact the NSA, at NSA headquarters in Fort Meade Maryland, it’s widely believed that the NSA has the most computing power of any organization in the world of any corporation or government agency, and to put all of that computing power into searching the US telecommunications networks is an awesome power and that is why this is such an important story.”

Harry Smith: “One of the things that the government says is you know look the methods we’re using, it’s almost like having a big troller net out in the ocean trying to catch fish and you couldn’t possibly get millions of warrants in order to get permission to do that and we’re not really spying on anybody who doesn’t need to be spied on, this is the only way we can really go and get this information, to which you say what?”

James Risen: “Well I say that’s possible, that may be true, that this program may be effective, but the problem with the way the President and the NSA went about this was they didn’t go, they didn’t follow the existing rules and laws and they didn’t go to Congress and they didn’t go to the courts to follow the existing system that had been put in place 30 years ago to allow for government eavesdropping within the United States with court approval.”

Harry Smith: “Well the President says listen, our job, my job is to protect American citizens, and at all costs I need to make sure another 9/11 doesn’t happen, don’t I have the authority, what’s the principle involved here the explain, the doctrine of self defense, can’t I use that, don’t I have the authority to do this on my own?”

James Risen: “Well I think that’s the debate that we can now have because this is public. What the President was doing was secretly doing this without having any ability for Americans to know about it and to discuss whether or not this is legal. In the end, we may as a country decide this is proper, but there was no debate about this prior to this.”

Harry Smith: “So many subjects in this book that it’s impossible to address all of them in just 5 minutes, but very quickly, among the things you say is the fix was in in terms of the war in Iraq, that this was a fait accompli, that this was going to happen perhaps even before 9/11.”

James Risen: “Well there was a meeting of CIA officials in Rome in April of 2002, and one of the participants, one of the CIA officers who was in that meeting said that when they were all, this was all of the European stations were brought to Rome for a discussion about Iraq, and this person described the meeting as a secret pep rally to gin them up in order to go after Iraq, and they said that one of the officers who was presenting at that meeting about Iraq was saying that we were, that this was going to happen before 9/11, and that 9/11 delayed things.”

Harry Smith: “Actually ended up delaying things. The other thing that you talk about is early on, especially after 9/11, that the CIA and even the Department of Defense and it’s newly formed sort of intelligence gathering groups sort of parroting the CIA, were going to operate outside of sort of conventional methods of intelligence gathering, and you say, the sense that I got, is once that was established all bets were off in terms of torture and everything else.”

James Risen: “Yeah, I think that’s one of the real problems that we’ve had since 9/11 is that the President made it clear, and others in the Bush administration made it clear to the CIA very early on after 9/11, the gloves are coming off. And that was, that led to a whole series of decisions that now have given us the secret infrastructure around the world of secret CIA prisons and interrogation techniques that go beyond what we have been willing to do in the past, and now 4 years later, many people in the CIA and elsewhere in the government are saying how do we get out of this? We now have these secret prisons, what do we do with these people? Are we going to keep these people forever? We’re kind of stuck.”

Harry Smith: “And, these are some of the people that are talking to you who, which leads to a whole other conversation about, their, ok we’ve got to go right now. Thank you very much, most disturbing book I’ve read in a long time.”
Rich Noyes
Rich Noyes
Rich Noyes is the Senior Editor for Newsbusters