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NYT's Lichtblau Details White House Effort to Block NSA Story

March 28, 2008

In December 2005, New York Times reporters James Risen and Eric Lichtblau broke the shocking story of the Bush administration's program of illegal domestic surveillance by the NSA. Now, in a new book due out next week, Lichtblau details the White House's 13-month effort to block the Times' revelations of its lawlessness. And to be sure, that deceitful stonewalling and the threats of retribution that followed show a Bush administration determined to conceal its criminality at any cost.
In excerpts from his upcoming book (Bush's Law: The Remaking of American Justice) published in Slate, Eric Lichtblau describes the surreal effort of the Bush White House to squash the New York Times' revelations regarding its patently illegal warrantless wiretapping. Lichtblau describes a last-ditch effort by the administration to dissuade the Times during a December 2005 meeting at the White House:

As New York Times Editor Bill Keller, Washington Bureau Chief Phil Taubman, and I awaited our meeting, we still weren't sure who would make the pitch for the president. Dick Cheney had thought about coming to the meeting but figured his own tense relations with the newspaper might actually hinder the White House's efforts to stop publication. (He was probably right.) As the door to the conference room opened, however, a slew of other White House VIPs strolled out to greet us, with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice near the head of the receiving line and White House Counsel Harriet Miers at the back.
For more than an hour, we told Bush's aides what we knew about the wiretapping program, and they in turn told us why it would do grave harm to national security to let anyone else in on the secret. Consider the financial damage to the phone carriers that took part in the program, one official implored. If the terrorists knew about the wiretapping program, it would be rendered useless and would have to be shut down immediately, another official urged: "It's all the marbles." The risk to national security was incalculable, the White House VIPs said, their voices stern, their faces drawn. "The enemy," one official warned, "is inside the gates." The cliches did their work; the message was unmistakable: If the New York Times went ahead and published this story, we would share the blame for the next terrorist attack.

The Bush administration's claims, of course, were without foundation. But faced with the failure of its baseless fear-mongering in preventing the New York Times from shining a spotlight on President Bush's clear wrongdoing, the White House then commenced a campaign of retribution.
After the revelations about the NSA program by the New York Times on December 16, 2005, President Bush raged three days later about what he deemed "a shameful act" that is "helping the enemy". Claiming he didn't order an investigation, Bush added "the Justice Department, I presume, will proceed forward with a full investigation" At a subsequent press conference that same day, Alberto Gonzales suggested the retribution that was to come:

"As to whether or not there will be a leak investigation, as the President indicated, this is really hurting national security, this has really hurt our country, and we are concerned that a very valuable tool has been compromised. As to whether or not there will be a leak investigation, we'll just have to wait and see."

Americans didn't have to wait long. In August 2007, a team of FBI agents raided the home of Thomas M. Tamm, a veteran prosecutor and former official of the Office of Intelligence Policy and Review (OIPR) within DOJ. As Michael Isikoff detailed in Newsweek:

The agents seized Tamm's desktop computer, two of his children's laptops and a cache of personal files. Tamm and his lawyer, Paul Kemp, declined any comment. So did the FBI. But two legal sources who asked not to be identified talking about an ongoing case told NEWSWEEK the raid was related to a Justice criminal probe into who leaked details of the warrantless eavesdropping program to the news media. The raid appears to be the first significant development in the probe since The New York Times reported in December 2005 that Bush had authorized the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on the international phone calls and e-mails of U.S. residents without court warrants.

The Bush administration's amen corner among the conservative chattering classes was not content to rest with a witch-hunt for the NSA whistle-blowers. They wanted revenge against the New York Times itself.
In 2006 testimony before Congress and again in an August 2007 rant, Commentary editor Gabriel Schoenfeld urged prosecution of Lichtblau, Risen and the paper:

"With the investigation making progress, the possibility remains that even if the New York Times is not indicted, its reporters - James Risen and Eric Lichtblau - might be called before the grand jury and asked to confirm under oath that Tamm, or some other suspect, was their source. That is what happened to a whole battalion of journalists in the investigation of Scooter Libby in the Valerie Plame fiasco.
If Risen and Lichtblau promised their source confidentiality, they might choose not to testify. That would potentially place them, like Judith Miller in the Libby investigation, in contempt of court and even land them in prison."

To date, neither Risen nor Lichtblau have faced criminal sanctions for their Pulitzer Prize winning coverage of the illicit NSA warrantless surveillance. And while that may be yet to come, that doesn't mean the reporters aren't already in legal hot water.
On February 1, 2008, the Times revealed that Risen had been subpoenaed by a federal grand jury in an effort to force him to reveal his confidential sources. But that subpoena did not concern his 2005 reporting on the NSA domestic spying program. Instead, the Justice Department wants Risen to divulge his sources for a chapter on Iran's nuclear program in his 2006 book, State of War. In it, Risen describes CIAs unsuccessful efforts during the Clinton and Bush administrations to infiltrate the Iranian nuclear program. So while conservatives were quick to applaud the news of the subpoena for Risen, many still fume that it concerned the wrong offense.
No doubt, the Bush administration's war on the New York Times is far from over. The right-wing rage machine groused over the paper's publication of revelations that the United State clandestinely helped Pakistan secure its nuclear arsenal. (Again, the Times deferred to the White House for over three years before printing the story.)
For his part, Eric Lichtblau concludes that the New York Times' decision to proceed with the NSA domestic surveillance story was undoubtedly the right one:

"More than two years later, the Times' decision to publish the story - a decision that was once so controversial - has been largely overshadowed by all the other political and legal clamor surrounding President Bush's warrantless wiretapping program: the dozens of civil lawsuits; the ongoing government investigations; the raging congressional debate; and the still-unresolved question, which Congress will take up again next week, of whether phone companies should be given legal immunity for their cooperation in the program."

Almost on cue, Attorney General Michael Mukasey last night reached a new low in hyping the need for telecom immunity. Speaking in San Francisco, an emotional Mukasey choked up while playing the 9/11 card on President Bush's behalf:

"We've got three thousand people who went to work that day and didn't come home to show for that."

That shameless fear-mongering and duplicity shows the Bush administration mindset that the New York Times - and the American people - are up against.


About

Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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