James Risen on Groupthink and Covering the National Security State
New York Times reporter James Risen, via Twitter.
James Risen recently won the Elijah Parish Lovejoy Journalism Award for excellence in journalism.
The Pulitzer Prize winning national security reporter has long been hounded by the US Justice Department to disclose his confidential sources from his 2006 book State of War.
As the Washington Post wrote back in August, “Prosecutors want Mr. Risen’s testimony in their case against Jeffrey Sterling, a former CIA official who is accused of leaking details of a failed operation against Iran’s nuclear program. Mr. Risen properly has refused to identify his source, at the risk of imprisonment. Such confidential sources are a pillar of how journalists obtain information. If Mr. Risen is forced to reveal the identity of a source, it will damage the ability of journalists to promise confidentiality to sources and to probe government behavior.”
While accepting the Lovejoy Award, Risen had this to say:
The conventional wisdom of our day is the belief that we have had to change the nature of our society to accommodate the global war on terror. Incrementally over the last thirteen years, Americans have easily accepted a transformation of their way of life because they have been told that it is necessary to keep them safe. Americans now slip off their shoes on command at airports, have accepted the secret targeted killings of other Americans without due process, have accepted the use of torture and the creation of secret offshore prisons, have accepted mass surveillance of their personal communications, and accepted the longest continual period of war in American history. Meanwhile, the government has eagerly prosecuted whistleblowers who try to bring any of the government’s actions to light.
Americans have accepted this new reality with hardly a murmur. Today, the basic prerequisite to being taken seriously in American politics is to accept the legitimacy of the new national security state that has been created since 9/11. The new basic American assumption is that there really is a need for a global war on terror. Anyone who doesn’t accept that basic assumption is considered dangerous and maybe even a traitor.
Today, the U.S. government treats whistleblowers as criminals, much like Elijah Lovejoy, because they want to reveal uncomfortable truths about the government’s actions. And the public and the mainstream press often accept and champion the government’s approach, viewing whistleblowers as dangerous fringe characters because they are not willing to follow orders and remain silent.
The crackdown on leaks by first the Bush administration and more aggressively by the Obama administration, targeting both whistleblowers and journalists, has been designed to suppress the truth about the war on terror. This government campaign of censorship has come with the veneer of the law. Instead of mobs throwing printing presses in the Mississippi River, instead of the creation of the kind of “enemies lists” that President Richard Nixon kept, the Bush and Obama administrations have used the Department of Justice to do their bidding. But the effect is the same — the attorney general of the United States has been turned into the nation’s chief censorship officer. Whenever the White House or the intelligence community get angry about a story in the press, they turn to the Justice Department and the FBI and get them to start a criminal leak investigation, to make sure everybody shuts up.
What the White House wants is to establish limits on accepted reporting on national security and on the war on terror. By launching criminal investigations of stories that are outside the mainstream coverage, they are trying to, in effect, build a pathway on which journalism can be conducted. Stay on the interstate highway of conventional wisdom with your journalism, and you will have no problems. Try to get off and challenge basic assumptions, and you will face punishment.
Journalists have no choice but to fight back, because if they don’t they will become irrelevant.
Bonus: The NSA and Me, James Bamford’s account of covering the agency over the last 30 years, via The Intercept.
Double Bonus: Elijah Parish Lovejoy was a minister in the first half of the 19th century who edited an abolitionist paper called the St. Louis Observer. He was murdered by a pro-slavery mob in 1837. More via Wikipedia.
Images: Selected tweets via James Risen.