In the abstruse world of espionage, it's not always easy to know when you are in on a secret. So when intelligence sources approached New York Times reporter James Risen in late 2004 with evidence that the Bush Administration was running a covert domestic-spying program, Risen says he "wasn't sure what to believe." As Risen and Times colleague Eric Lichtblau looked into the story, more whistle-blowers came forward, convincing the reporters that the eavesdropping claims were credible. At that point Risen asked a few "very senior" government officials what they knew about the spying program. "They would look at me with these blank expressions, and say, 'No--that can't be going on,'" Risen told TIME. That's when Risen knew he was sitting on a major scoop.
But it took Risen more than a year to get the story into print--and not before President Bush personally implored Times editors not to publish Risen and Lichtblau's account of how Bush authorized the National Security Agency to wiretap telephone and e-mail communications inside the U.S. without court-sanctioned warrants. The Times ran the article on Dec. 16, touching off a blogospheric scrum: conservatives accuse the Times of aiding terrorists by revealing secrets of U.S. spycraft while liberals say the paper caved to White House pressure by not dropping the bombshell sooner. At the center of the article's backstory is Risen, who unsuccessfully pushed to publish the wiretap report last year, then took a leave to write a book, State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration. It now appears he may pay a price for the disclosure: last Friday the Justice Department opened an investigation into who leaked the existence of the NSA program to the Times, raising the prospect of Risen's being compelled to reveal the identities of the "nearly dozen" current and former officials who spoke to him about the program or face jail time for contempt of court.
In an interview, Risen said the Times' choice to run the wiretap story when it did was "not my decision and had nothing to do with me." But he said the paper "has performed a great public service by printing it, because this policy is something the nation should debate." State of War provides an account of the origins and scope of the wiretap program that basically repeats the revelations contained in Risen and Lichtblau's stories in the Times. But the book also argues that the NSA's eavesdropping policy shows the extent to which the war on terrorism has spurred the intelligence community to flout legal conventions at home and abroad. Risen's chief target is the CIA, where, he argues, institutional dysfunction and feckless leadership after 9/11 led to intelligence breakdowns that continue to haunt the U.S. Though much of State of War covers ground that is broadly familiar, the book is punctuated with a wealth of previously unreported tidbits about covert meetings, aborted CIA operations and Oval Office outbursts. The result is a brisk, if dispiriting, chronicle of how, since 9/11, the "most covert tools of national-security policy have been misused."