- Some highlights from this interview
- How The Blotter has changed the way he reports
- Running nuclear material over the U.S. border
- Ross's report that the government was tracing his and other news organizations' phone calls
Ross is chief investigative correspondent for ABC News, where he has worked since 1994. Before that he spent 20 years reporting for NBC News. He and his unit run the ABC News investigate blog The Blotter; a tip from one of its readers lead Ross to break the scandal involving Rep. Mark Foley's (R-Fla.) communication with Congressional pages. This is an edited transcript of an interview conducted on Sept. 14, 2006.
... Is being an investigative reporter for network news better or easier than it used to be?
For me, it's better. I have more people working with me, and I think I'm treated, really, with more regard and thought of as more valuable.
... What's changed?
I don't know -- maybe my hard work. I don't know. I'm very pleased to be where I am, if that's what you mean.
What I mean is that investigative reporting costs money. It's not the kind of reporting that we notice in the lineup at prime time. It can cause trouble. Have you had any trouble or lawsuits over the years?
All the time, right.
Why are they treating you so well?
In today's network news landscape, as I understand it, what really distinguishes one network from another is original reporting, and I think that's what I bring, I hope as often as possible, on all the programs. But it really has to be original and different. It's not the same old thing. It has to be something unique and new. And that's why, I think, we are treated as something of great value.
Was that always true?
Frankly, for me, I've always felt that way -- 20 years at NBC and now 12 years here at ABC -- as treated with respect and as something that was valuable. And here it has grown into a very good-sized unit, with a serious commitment of money, which I think is how you always judge how you're respected. They spend a lot of money because I have a lot of people working with me, and it's a good situation.
“There are more face-to-face meetings, fewer phone calls, if any. A lot of people now don't want to talk on the phone at all. So we travel more.”
You've heard the criticisms over the years about the lack of real reporting on television news, and network news in particular. You occupy a peculiar space. Is that true now?
Immodestly, I think that the success of our investigative unit has led NBC and now CBS to try to replicate that, create their own units. I think they've seen the value in it as well. It may run against what you've read or what you think, but for me it's just really never been better. These are the golden days, for me, right now. ...
How many people do you have?
Directly, 12 people.
Who help you put these stories together and do the reporting you present?
Well, producers who are my partners -- you know, fellow reporters.
You mean you're just not a pretty face?
Right. I'm a reporter; they're reporters. I'm the one [who] puts them on the air, but we have a team of reporters. We're doing a lot of work here. That's why I say for me, these are really the golden days, because [I've] never had that kind of team, that size. And the appetite for the material is also, from virtually every program that I work for, huge appetite for more.
Criticism that you sensationalize stories -- any you would take back?
Any stories I would take back?
I probably would do every story differently. You look back at stories you did a year ago, and you wonder why you did it a particular way. But you can't really operate that way. I just have to learn and go forward, try to get better every day, every story. But every story I do, I put everything I have into every story.
You didn't start with the same resources?
I started out working with one producer, [Ira Silverman], at NBC News. Started in 1976, and started doing stories on the Teamsters Union and organized crime. Ira and I worked together up until about 1990 at NBC, did lots of stories, and it was almost all for the Nightly News. ... It was excellent, but it was limited.
There was no real check on us, but then the world of news magazines came along. NBC created one, Dateline, and I moved over there and had a slightly larger group. Then 1994, ABC recruited me. I came here, and in that time the number of people I've had to work with has grown, the resources have grown, the airtime has grown. So it's been, for me, an excellent experience.
Your experience seems the opposite of others'.
All I know is where I've been and what I've done, and I have had good bosses, supportive executive producers, and everything I know is they want more of what I do.
Are they doing more of it in the magazine shows? More Brian Rosses being created?
I hope not. I don't want to lose my edge here, you know? I'd like to keep a monopoly on it, but the magazine shows here want as much from me as I can produce.
But you know some of the other stories on the magazine shows.
Right. [They] cover a wide range of topics.
First smile -- why?
There are lots of stories, and a lot of stories that I wouldn't necessarily do, but you might watch. I respect that in the prime-time area, there's a full range of stories, and I think that's perfectly fine and healthy. ...
[Have you done stories about the Disney Company, which owns ABC?]
I've done a number of stories about Disney and ABC.
Some have been on the air, and some have not.
For the most part, most of the stories I've done that reflect on Disney or ABC have been broadcast.
Not easy to do?
No. When I worked at NBC, stories that touched on GE [General Electric] were very hard, and at ABC it's the same thing. It's sensitive, obviously. It doesn't stop me from trying, but --
Wouldn't recommend it for your health?
There's extra effort, because obviously you're talking about your own company, and you'll end up in the situation where you'll be criticized for whatever you do. You'll never be tough enough. Why did you go easy on your own company? Why didn't you go harder? You were too hard. It's kind of a no-win.
But some stories, you still push ahead. I've done a lot of stories on the role of broadcasting. We did a story the other night about how the broadcasters, including ABC, are fighting one of the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission, which is they should get rid of a certain broadcast frequency sooner than they had planned to, to help first responders. It's sensitive, because ABC and the other companies are lobbying hard against Congress, and people in Congress are criticizing the broadcasters for putting lives at risk. So those are stories that are not easy to do, but sometimes they're important, and those get on the air. ...
[Could you do a story about] deregulation by [the] FCC (Federal Communications Commission) of the broadcasting industry and the effort of the industry to continue that deregulation?
Well, our story actually did touch on that. We've actually done I think almost every convention, because the broadcasters have a very active lobby, and so we've touched on that. It's something, I think, that if you're going to a story about campaign contributions and special interests lobbying Congress, sometimes that involves broadcasters.
Suppliers to ABC? National Football League.
I've never had a problem there.
If "blog" means we're just sort of free-associating, putting things on without checking them out, that's not what we have. So we called it The Blotter. ... We think of ourselves as reporters, putting on stories quickly and as they evolve, but they still go through the same fact checking and background checking that ABC News would do for any story.
It's very labor-intensive. It is not something you sit down and just knock out.
Which explains why your unit's getting bigger.
Well, part of it is that, yeah. This daily Blotter we do has gone from about zero to 2.5 million [page views] a month in just four months. There seems to be a real appetite for it, and so we're putting more of our own resources in there. What ends up happening a lot is stories that might not otherwise make the World News [Tonight] or be enough for a magazine show do make it on The Blotter. ...
The Internet has allowed you as a reporter to make more information available?
Without a doubt, and it has the effect then of actually [serving] as a way to cultivate sources and work sources and develop sources. More stories bring more stories, I always think. So we get people now calling in with ideas for The Blotter, people who have heard about it. They want to come up with stories more over the transom, which is unusual. ...
What's your reaction to what people call citizen journalism on the Web?
It's interesting. There's so much of it, I think, in the end, you need somebody to sort of tell you what is important. It comes back to the editing function. But I love reading all of that; to me it's fascinating. The one thing that we've added in The Blotter, for instance, is a place for people to comment. Some stories will provoke really hundreds if not thousands of responses and internal debates and criticism of us: Why would you put a story like that on the air? And then somebody else will respond, "Well, of course that's what they're supposed to do."
It's fascinating to watch it. ... That's a great thing that we can do that, because you don't really get that on television, but you do get it here. ...
Editor's Note: After this interview was conducted, in September 2006, a reader of The Blotter submitted a lead via e-mail, which led Ross and his team to investigate Rep. Mark Foley's (R-Fla.) correspondence with members of the congressional page program. Foley resigned from Congress over the ensuing scandal.
I do. In terms of policy?
Do you have to tell them who your source is?
If asked I do. And I have, on a regular basis.
How many people do you have to tell?
I tell one person, who is the vice president [for editorial quality] who oversees that part, Kerry Smith.
Does Ms. Smith agree to keep that confidence, no matter what?
Yes. That's my understanding with her. I think that she would, as I would, be prepared to go to jail to keep that confidential. I wouldn't tell her otherwise. I want to keep faith with the sources.
How do you deal with the problem that came up in the Valerie Plame saga? How do you deal with the problem when your corporate owners receive a subpoena and they're going to give up what they've got?
The people I work with here, from ABC and the Disney Company, the lawyers, we have fought valiantly every single effort to get our material and with, I think, some success, just by putting up resistance and making it difficult. That's the best we can do. At some point the law rules, but we don't go down easy.
The New York Times is in that same situation around phone records. But when it came to Time magazine, [then-editor in chief] Norman Pearlstine told us a corporation cannot be civilly disobedient.
I wouldn't agree with that. In the end, it comes down, both for the corporation and the individual reporter -- and I would be prepared to face the fines or imprisonment for not revealing a source. And I think I'd get the support of this company.
You might get the support. Do you give the company your expense accounts?
There's names on the expense accounts. I assume you use a company computer?
All of that. No, I understand what you're saying.
If they get a subpoena, what protects your source when the company says, "We're a publicly traded company, and we have to obey the law"?
Well, that hasn't happened here. You're saying one day might it happen? I don't know. But the law is not in our favor right now. Rulings have been against us. But at ABC at least, we are I think fighting as hard as anybody to make sure it doesn't get to that point.
Do you have any plan or security measures in place in that regard?
What do you mean by that?
Don't put names of confidential sources in computers that belong to the company.
As a practical matter, I can't really operate that way. I cannot operate using quarters and pay phones. I'm going to use the phone; I'm going to use my computer. And if the government is dead-set determined to crack into it and get our records without our permission, they'll probably be able to do that. But it won't be because I've given it up easily.
Do you tell that to your sources?
I will resist. I'm asked on a regular basis, "You'd go to jail, right?," and I said, "Yes, I would."
Do you tell them notes, outtakes, all kinds of material are in the possession of ABC, and they say they will resist?
As best I know we will resist. At some point maybe it will change, I don't know. And I don't give out this agreement willy-nilly; this is something you do only with the true confidential sources. But we'll fight as best we can. ...
You've been in this business 32 years. Has the pressure related to confidential sources ever been like this?
This is the most pressure that I can recall in 32 years, with the government having the most success in going after phone records [in the case of The New York Times reporting on two Chicago mosques suspected of terrorist financing] and trying to put reporters in jail. It's become a true occupational hazard now.
It's mostly the federal government, right?
It is the federal government, and it's this administration in particular. The people I talk to at the FBI say this would never have been the case, but now they have no problem getting approval to go after reporters' phone records and trying to go after reporters.
To give them their best case, I think it's Sept. 11, 2001. They sense that it doesn't matter what reporters may think or say; we're fighting against people who want to kill us, and we have to do everything we can, and reporters can't stand in the way of that. ...
They're issuing grand jury subpoenas now in leak investigations to people writing about steroids in professional sports.
Right. Well, they've set a number of precedents based on the war on terror, which they're now using. That's now spilling over, as everyone predicted it would. The rulings of the Court have changed the landscape substantially.
The Court says that all they're doing is enforcing the 34-year-old Branzburg [v. Hayes] decision.
Well, that's a political decision, and I think there's a legal argument about that. I'm not a lawyer -- I leave that to others -- but they have taken that and tried to use that to their advantage, and that is essentially a political decision that other administrations haven't made. ... But this administration, the people I talk to inside say it is a green light to go against reporters. …
Did you do a story that your phone records were being tracked by the government?
I did a story with one of the producers and reporters I work with, Rich Esposito. It related to the CIA's secret prisons, the flights of captured terrorists around the world, and also the various interrogation techniques the CIA uses. We had extremely good sources on that: current and former CIA officers who were upset with what happened to their agency. They felt they'd gone down the wrong road, and they gave us a lot of information.
After those stories were aired, one of our sources in law enforcement told Rich Esposito: "We know who you're calling. I know who you called. You've got to be careful here; they're tracking you." Now, as far as we know, nobody asked for our phone records. There's no record that we know of anybody subpoenaing our phone records. But that's what this source said.
Are they looking at other reporters?
We know that from cases where it's shown up in court, trying to get The New York Times' [phone] records [in the case of a government raid on two Chicago mosques suspected of financing terrorism]. And we know the CIA has made criminal referrals to the Justice Department to go after reporters' sources involving stories in The Washington Post and The New York Times. ...
You reported, "Other sources have told us that phone calls and contacts by reporters for ABC News, along with The New York Times and The Washington Post, are being examined as part of a widespread CIA leak investigation."
That's what we were told. How they got them I don't know, but we did report that.
Are you saying that the government hasn't confirmed this to you, or other sources haven't? You still have one source.
We had the initial source. Others in the government told me this was going on, and they were not knowledgeable about how our records in particular were known to them.
Why shouldn't they go after reporters if in fact they're looking at a leak of national security information?
Because I think it infringes on the public's right to know. We are part of the fabric of democracy, where we are reporting important events, and to try to put a chill on us is counterproductive. The crime involved is not a crime we've committed. We haven't broken the laws in any way. We've reported what we've learned. ...
I'm thinking of myself as an investigator of Brian Ross, trying to find out the answer to a question. You go to the people who might know. If it's a leak and a leak that was meant to be public, you go to the reporter, because that's the agent who made it public.
Right. But you balance, I think, in a free society, how you conduct an investigation like that. For instance, my lawyer knows my sources. They would never think of going after him to get the information because they respect the confidentiality between a lawyer and a client. I think they should show the same respect about the confidentiality between a news source and a reporter.
But what if it's national security information where many lives may be potentially at stake?
Well, that's the flaw in the argument; that really isn't the case. They're going after a leak after the fact. They're not trying to save lives. It's not something about to happen. ... This is an effort to chill internal complaints about, for instance, with the CIA, actions they've taken that their own employees find reprehensible and repugnant. ...
Who are you, Brian Ross, to make a decision as to what should be known by the American public and not known by the American public?
I'm a reporter for ABC News, and if there are people who are responsible, who I've checked out, inside the CIA or the NSA [National Security Agency] or the FBI, who feel this is information that is important to be known by the public, that's who I am then. That's the kind of thing we put on the air. ...
Didn't you run some radioactive material through the border?
To prove you could do it?
To show that the security that was in effect was nowhere near what the government said it was.
And, some would argue, to show Al Qaeda that they could do it.
Al Qaeda already had figured that out. We had the notes from some of the captured Al Qaeda leaders who had investigated how to essentially rent a shipping container ... as a way to smuggle nuclear material into this country. Essentially we're doing what Al Qaeda had already planned to do. We didn't teach them a thing; they knew this.
But you showed them it could be done. They never tried.
No. And what we showed was that the defenses against it weren't there, as they said they were. I wish we had done a story on Sept. 9 of 2001 that showed airport security was lousy. That would have been valuable, too.
In fact, there were stories done about airport security being lousy for years.
There are not enough of them, because I think that's our role; that's how you get change. You put a spotlight on it. It changes because you do that. ...
... [Former CIA Director Porter] Goss said reporters should be brought to a grand jury and compelled to reveal who's leaking classified information and raised publicly the question: Are you above the law?
I'm not above the law. I don't think I've broken any laws. And I think that he's where he should be now, [and] that's out of public office.
Mr. Goss. He had an agency where he was despised and where he put in place policies that were objected to across the board by lots and lots of CIA officers, current and former. It was those officers who were disgusted with Goss and the way he ran that place, who felt they had an obligation to get the word out [about] what had become of the CIA.
That's how we were able to do our stories. I know that, talking to the people who talked to us. So he should look in the mirror.
Congressman [Peter] King [R-N.Y.], [state] Sen. [Jake] Corman [R-Pa.] and the attorney general of the United States [Alberto Gonzales] think it's even more serious, that people should be prosecuted for espionage. Just a bunch of smoke?
Well, they are politicians, and I think that doesn't solve the problem. It's foolish talk, frankly.
Other societies, you can't report this kind of material, period, right?
We're different. We have a First Amendment. It's one of the strengths of this country.
The reply is the Constitution is not a suicide pact.
And no one says it is. There's no story we would do here that would put in danger lives. When we've done stories, the argument was, well, you make it impossible, if you reveal this, for the CIA ever to make any more secret deals.
Well, it's not my job to protect the clandestine operations of the CIA when they make deals that would violate the country's own laws when they're making the deals.
Foreign intelligence operations and law enforcement agencies are sometimes reluctant to tell U.S. agencies what they know because it may be revealed, get leaked. So it does affect the CIA's ability, for instance, to share information.
The CIA objected to our story about the secret prisons they're operating in Europe, and their position was, essentially, "How are we ever going to be able to make any more secret-prison deals if you do this story?" Didn't put any lives at stake. It really didn't. ...
They're looking for a leak inside. I've learned there's only an investigation if the story is true.
Of course. It's a kind of confirmation: You know you've hit a nerve and you've reported something that is true. ...
Has the knowledge that your investigations may be under investigation changed the way you work?
I have to be more careful. There are more face-to-face meetings, fewer phone calls, if any. A lot of people now don't want to talk on the phone at all. So we travel more.
It costs ABC more?
Small price to pay. ...
[Have] you been told your name was given up by your source in a leak investigation?
I've had it happen both ways. I've had sources say, "Yes, I've talked to Brian Ross," and I've had sources who have talked to me deny it.
Have they come to you and said, "They just questioned me about you"?
At that point they're not calling, you know? They're not making any phone records. There's a lot of pressure, certainly, on people who are sources inside the CIA, inside the FBI, inside the government. That, people have to accept, I think, when they become sources. They have to know they may come looking to find out who the sources were. Nothing I can do about that. They're not going to get the name from me. That's my guarantee. ...