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Is there a war on the press?

Carl Bernstein

There has been a series of ideological attacks on the press, particularly The New York Times, particularly The Washington Post, sometimes The Wall Street Journal, about reporting national security information that is truthful, that does not suit the ideological purpose of those in power and of a dominant ideology. We've seen it time and again, and they make the conduct of the press the issue and not the conduct of the president and his men. That's what happened in Watergate. They made our conduct -- [Bob] Woodward, Bernstein, Bradlee, Graham -- the issue in Watergate, not the conduct of Richard Nixon and the men around him. It's an old technique, and unfortunately it works very often, because it's easy to whip people up who agree with you and to lose the principle. ... But the point is, we don't serve ideologies. We try, these institutions, to serve the truth. ...

Look, what's happened here is that an ideological struggle has complicated some basic legal issues that are worth debating, and that you cannot look at the whole equation outside of ideology of the right and the left. If you look at The Huffington Post Web site on the left, you will see this flagellation of The New York Times, of The Washington Post, for the way it performed in the Plame story. And these people believe -- just as the Bush White House believes -- that the reporters ought to have to give up their sources.

Well, I've got to tell you, we're not going to know the truths [from] both sides, right and left, if we are in a position where we have to give up our sources. We have to remain in a more elevated place. We cannot be part of this ideological struggle. We have to be true to our own principles, which have to do with a very difficult job. ...

Is part of the problem here the positive spin that the media got out of the triumph of Watergate? You didn't wind up in jail. You wound up with a Pulitzer Prize and a movie, right? And this time around, the public perception of the media is not so positive, and therefore, it doesn't have that kind of support when it faces the government.

Again, I think there is very much an ideological element in this. Also there is the fact that we haven't done our job well enough in so many of our broadcast media and some newspapers and magazines. Increasingly, sensationalism, gossip, manufactured controversy have become our agenda instead of the best obtainable version of the truth. We've become frivolous.

So it's undermined the confidence of the public.

So that, too, has undermined, along with ideological factors, confidence in the press. But I would say that right now the assault on the press is primarily ideological -- from the right primarily, but also sometimes from the left -- and that the basic problem we had in Watergate was, instead of the conduct of the president, the vice president, secretary of defense being the issue in the Bush administration, they're trying to make the conduct of the press the issue. ...

 
Ben Bradlee

Former editor, The Washington Post

Ben Bradlee

I don't think it is some big wave that is peaking. I think that the press is a very convenient whipping boy for politicians, and it has been since they invented it. I don't know any reporters or editors who are really feeling threatened. We've got to watch it. Then let's see who's a traitor, who's doing their country harm. I don't think it's the reporters.

 
Patrick Buchanan

Commentator; former adviser to President Nixon

Patrick Buchanan

That's the whole war -- the battle between the White House and the national media is the battle over who controls the national agenda. ... The real power of the left was in the national media. ...

So this is an ideological battle?

It was a political and philosophical battle. ...

You found an issue to mobilize people around -- the disaffected, the silent majority. This was all part of a political strategy.

No, the attacks on the media were not part of a preconceived strategy. ... We didn't come into the White House saying, "I'll tell you what: This fall, let's launch some attacks on the national networks." We had an agenda we wanted to implement, and the principal impediment to that objective in Vietnam was the mass demonstrations, given aid and comfort and support by the liberal media which was attacking the president constantly. At the same time, when he would speak to the country, as soon as he would finish, they would reinterpret everything for the listener so that he would not go away carrying with him what the president had told him.

They were standing on our windpipe, and that's why we went after them. ...

So you didn't really know what the reaction was going to be to Agnew's speech. But you discovered that it was an issue, something people could rally around.

After the Agnew speech, there was a national explosion over the issue. On the covers of Time and Newsweek they had the network anchors. It was the number one story all week long. It was the hottest story in the country. And the fact is, the vast majority of the American people agreed 100 percent with us. The networks were inundated with telegrams denouncing their bias.

So what had happened was, the cordite was all out there; we just ignited it. And there's no doubt that the public responded because the public already believed what Spiro Agnew had said. ...

 

Earl Caldwell

Is freedom of the press in danger now?

Freedom of the press is always in danger, and as well it should be. I mean, [it's] understandable, because it's pretty awesome to say we can go in, we can do this, we can do that. We have the power to do this and publish this and that. It disturbs, aggravates, intimidates people in high places, people who have power. But it's necessary. And when you really think about it, it's one of those things that's in the Constitution. ...

Everybody can't go to the trial down at the courthouse. They say you're entitled to a public trial. This is one of your rights; you're entitled to it. But there's not enough seats in the courtroom for everybody to get there. That's why we say we're going to set these five seats aside for the reporters, because we truly represent the public; because the public can't go [to] these places, can't know all these things. …

In America, we've had a great tradition of journalism. ... It used to be drunks in the newsroom. There would be yellow journalism and all these kind of things. But no, we're not going to do that anymore. We're not going to take money; you're not going to take any gifts; you're not going to do this. We're going to be not making anything up. ... And we got to a very high place. …

But something happened, and we got on the other side, and we've been going down the other side. ... I believe in some ways, we began to compromise ourselves over money, and it's causing trouble, problems for us that are great now. ...

I said I used to believe in the power of the press. Now, I see that there's an awful lot of weakness in there, that they're afraid to do things, afraid to say things, afraid to publish things. ... I think a part of it also has to do with the finances. ... With the largest news organizations in the country, ... the big fights internally are about profits. …

You can't have it both ways. You cannot say that we're not going to give people this solid information about things they need to know about and then expect people to have trust in you and to support you. ... One of the reasons why there are so many subpoenas now is because people know the media is weak, and you can kick them in the behind, and there's no penalty to it. ... But a part of it has to do with because these news organizations [are] timid on a lot of areas where they ought not be.

 
John Carroll

Former editor, Los Angeles Times

John Carroll

... [Is the recent] attack on The New York Times [for running its NSA wiretapping and SWIFT financial surveillance stories] a rerun of what happened 35 years ago? ...

Well, it's interesting. In the Iraq war, as a person who covered Vietnam, you certainly see things happening over and over again, learning old lessons about fighting an insurgency, and ... we're learning all this over again. And the attacks on the press, attempts to discredit the press, make it less believable, we certainly saw that during the Nixon and Agnew period. ... It's nothing new, but there is a fairly alarming confluence of cases right now that makes me think it's worse now than it was. ...

Denunciations of the press, legal attacks on the press, efforts to haul the press into court, efforts to take away The Washington Post's broadcasting license; ... I think it was every bit as raw back then during Vietnam as it is today. The expressions may differ a little bit in technical ways, but the climate was the same. …

The patriotism of the press was frequently denounced during Vietnam. We were often called traitors for writing things that were controversial or that were contrary to what the administration wanted written. There's always a class that's willing to denounce other people's patriotism.

For what purpose?

For purposes of saying there's only one opinion that's legitimate, and if you are a good citizen of this country, you'll keep your mouth shut because your opinion is wrong. I regard that as obviously wrong, misguided, but it's a permanent fixture of our political life, and I think that it becomes more visible in times of crisis.

 
Mark Corallo

Former director of public affairs, Justice Department

Mark Corallo

... These people in the Justice Department and a lot of other people in the administration, they don't want to give out the information. They are hostile to the press. I mean, all administrations are hostile to the press, but they talk about prosecution. ... It's a public war.

I guess it's amusing to me that John Ashcroft was perceived as being hostile to the press, and the opposite was true. ... He was not the warm and fuzzy type, but he certainly understood the role of the press, and [now] ... there's a different cast of characters, and I guess they see things a little differently.

How differently?

Well, obviously they're not shy about subpoenaing reporters, ... as in the BALCO case. I should elaborate on that a little bit, because the other thing that upset me about the BALCO subpoenas is that it sends a signal to the prosecutors out in the field that this is OK now; it doesn't have to be national security. Go ahead -- send them up here; send those requests up, because guess what? We're going to stamp them "approved" now. ...

The press in general doesn't just feel that this administration, let's say, wants to put them in jail, but they got spun ... in the run-up to the Iraq war and even up to today. ...

I disagree. ... I think that there is an obvious and necessary tension between any administration and the press. I think with this administration, you have a war going on. You have a war on terror that includes --

But this started before 9/11 -- the resistance of Vice President Cheney to give up information about his meetings and his energy task force. ... The administration doesn't want to give out information about what it's doing.

I think that there was a feeling early on in this administration that the previous administration, due to scandal after scandal, gave up a lot of executive power, and that they were going to bring it back into balance. And I think that this administration said, "You know what? No way." ... And 9/11, it changes everything. ...

... If the Justice Department continues issuing subpoenas in regular criminal cases for sources, as well as in these leak investigations that may result in subpoenas of reporters, what is that going to do to our democracy?

It's going to do exactly what I said it would do in my affidavit, which is why I filed this affidavit in the BALCO case: It's going to have an incredible chilling effect on the press. It is going to make people on both sides, meaning the reporter and the sources, a lot less likely to talk to each other.

One of the bargains we make in having a free press is that every once in a while -- and in this town it's almost on a daily basis -- sensitive information gets published. Ninety-nine percent of the time, a, it does no damage, and b, nobody really even knew it was sensitive. If we continue down this road, ... I think it's going to have a real damaging effect on our democracy. …

What I really hope is that you don't see a poll of the American people where 80 percent of them say it's OK. I mean, that's when we really have problems. ... That's when you have to wonder, where did we lose the battle? I hope that others will stand up and say: "Well, let's talk about this, folks. Let's not do this."

 
Lucy Dalglish

Executive director, The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

Lucy Dalglish

Has it ever been like this in your tenure?

Oh, in my tenure, absolutely not. ... There was a time in the late '60s to the mid-'70s where there were subpoenas flying all over the place, but then we had roughly 30 years of calm. About the time I was becoming a reporter and then a lawyer, it was a situation where every once in a while you'd see a story. Every once in a while you'd hear about a reporter going to jail -- nothing like we've been seeing the last couple of years.

And when you think about it, there's another logical reason for it. In addition to the state of the law not being all that good, and prosecutors feeling emboldened, we are engaged right now in an environment where the federal government is keeping more and more and more secrets all the time. The number of classified documents decisions that have been made in 2004, more than doubled the rate from 2000.

When you have a situation where everything is becoming secret, you have people in the government who believe that the only way they can expose some of these workings and operations of the government that might not be going very well is to tell a reporter. ... So you've got more and more secret sources, which leads to more and more leak investigations, which leads to more and more subpoenas of reporters. ...

 
Len Downie

Editor, The Washington Post

Len Downie

All during the time that I've been working at The Washington Post, every administration at one point or another has had a hostile relationship with the media. It comes and it goes. Obviously the Clinton administration was very angry with The Washington Post during the period in which we were reporting on Whitewater, Monica Lewinsky and impeachment. ...

The Carter administration, when they first came to Washington, were very unhappy with the reporting that indicated that they were off to a slow start in their administration, making mistakes. The first President Bush was not pleased at all with the way the press covered him and blamed the press for his not being re-elected.

Probably the one administration that had the best relationship with the press, ironically, ... was the Reagan administration, because they knew that to get angry at us was not helpful to their cause. So instead they would try to kill us with kindness. Jim Baker, when he worked [as chief of staff] for President Reagan, was always available to reporters who covered him, ... but of course he was trying to manipulate them the whole time. So they had an entirely different approach.

This administration came to town determined, like all administrations, to control the message, and they tried to do it through secrecy. ...

But they're just the opposite of the Clinton administration when it comes to, let's say, freedom of information, declassification of documents. They're reclassifying things.

Yes, that's correct. The rationale they use is that we're now at war against terrorism after Sept. 11, 2001, and I believe that rationale is not nearly adequate to cover a lot of the secrecy that they're trying to carry out.

This president had fewer press conferences than almost any president in living memory, so access has changed. I know you were trying to be evenhanded there, but it seems like there's a war with the press going on, not just with terrorism.

Certainly the relationship between this administration and the media is not a good one, and certainly we believe that the secrecy has been excessive, quite excessive. But at the same time, their job is to do their job, and our job is to find out what's going on. This always happens with the administrations after they've been around in Washington for a while: Personnel begins to change; schisms occur within the administration itself; its control over the message begins to fray. We're finding out more and more all the time. ...

 
Seymour Hersh

Writer, The New Yorker

Seymour Hersh

But the threat of using the Espionage Act against the press's reporting, the question is whether it's real or not, and reporters going to jail.

Yeah. What I'm saying about it is, it's a vehicle for them, the government. The way I look at the government is [it] doesn't like certain stories to be reported. And they have very little control over what happens. They can spin stuff. They can do stuff with the guys on the beat who are sort of -- they can't swing out much anyway.

But there's a great tradition in America of the newspapers -- we're the leaders in the world [in] really good, tough reporting, and you can't stop it. So they always resort to all sorts of "We're going to make this threat." That's always part of the game.

And I think it's just that, and what stops the government from taking the step that you're talking about, really actively crunching, is the First Amendment. It's the notion that you can't sustain this in any rational Supreme Court decision, and you can't sustain it with the public.

If you really move on the press in America, you're going to be in real political trouble -- not legal trouble, political trouble. It's politically untenable to crack down too hard.

So is it a game? No, it's more than a game. But there's a dance that goes on that has always gone on between us and them. We push it as hard as we can -- I'm talking about the good reporters, and there's a lot of [them] in this town who are doing their best to push it right now on this war. And the public knows a lot about the internecine warfare going on inside this government because the press is doing a much better job, let's say, than it did three years ago, before the war began in Iraq.

So there's always this tension, and sometimes it's ratcheted up. The new element is now the economic problems that the newspapers are having, which makes them more vulnerable to a lot of things. But on the other side, you also have a Web and a blog that fills in, that makes up.

So I don't see us being in a huge crisis any worse than usual. It's always a crisis when there's a terrible war. And again, this war is more frightening to me than the other war, Vietnam, [which] I always saw as a tactical war. Five years later we lose that war. and we're playing Monopoly with the Vietnamese, building hotels.

This is different. You're talking about 2 billion Muslims out there that are going to want payback for a long time. So we're into a different issue right now. But it's always been that way. And no, I'm not afraid of what's going to happen to me, because I think the political cost of moving against me -- I don't mean that arrogantly; not about moving against me or you, [but against] somebody who is more or less prominent in terms of being a critic, as you are, too -- is too high. They're just not going to take it.

 
John Miller

Assistant director for public affairs, FBI

John Miller

So when you sit back now and see these subpoenas -- whether they're for this young blogger/journalist, Josh Wolf, in San Francisco or the BALCO reporters [San Francisco Chronicle reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams] or apparently there may be some subpoenas [for] a leak investigation in the AIPAC [American Israel Public Affairs Committee] case -- is it getting a little more dangerous out there for journalists?

Well, that's a chicken-and-egg question. The question is, is it getting more dangerous for journalists, or are journalists revealing more sensitive information on a more regular basis? I don't know the answer to that question.

When you look at the season we're in, with the threat of terrorism and the post-9/11 world bringing an awful lot more national security issues before a larger body of reporters, I think you see a lot more traffic out there in sensitive areas than you probably would have in any other time of our generation of reporters. That means there's a lot more sensitive material floating around out there and a lot more issues of discussion --

But the subpoenas, at least so far, don't involve those issues. And one series of subpoenas had to do with a leak out of the White House and whether or not somebody was a CIA agent and the agent identification act had been violated --

I think people at the CIA look at that as a national security issue, revealing the identity of agents. The other cases you mentioned, one involves alleged espionage; another involves terrorism as the subject. All of that --

But the BALCO case is not national security.

When you get down to those cases, a referral comes in the BALCO case, it's [from] a judge who says, "I'm running this case; this information is part of my court; I demanded that it stay sealed, and somebody has handed it out, and I want to know who."

In that case, whether you're the Department of Justice or the FBI, you don't turn to the judge and say, "Well, find out yourself." You say, "We have a legal mandate, an obligation to investigate that." You go forward to the best of your ability to find out, because that's your obligation. This is in some ways a rub, a bit of friction between the judicial branch, the executive branch, the Fourth Estate. That is not necessarily new, but I think we're seeing more manifestations of it. That is because there is an awful lot more press now than there ever has been before in our lifetimes, churning out an awful lot more information. And where you see those frictions, it becomes a test of commitments.

What is the commitment of government people to uphold their obligations to keep those secrets if they've taken an oath to do so or are required by law? What is the commitment of those people who unearth that information and decide, with their eyes open, to publish it and to take the risk that comes with that in terms of, "Will there be questions asked about how I obtained it?," and, "Will I be willing to answer them?" And then [what is] the commitment of the investigators who have to sort that out?

Mark Corallo, who was at the Justice Department [as director of public affairs], has said to us -- because he was in the process of approving some of these things -- that the subpoena in BALCO would have never been approved under Attorney General [John] Ashcroft; that this is a step beyond. This is a change of policy. This is a new Justice Department that is looking for leakers, whether it's national security or, in this case, criminal cases.

I suggest you ask that question of the Justice Department. But the fact is that to obtain records about a reporter, to ask those questions, to take any of those steps requires, in this case, a judge to refer to a U.S. attorney to bring that to the assistant attorney general in charge of the criminal division in Washington, who had to bring it to the deputy attorney general of the United States and then ultimately to the highest law enforcement official in the land.

That shows that these decisions are not taken lightly. Nor is it a casual process that prosecutors and investigators can just haul reporters in and ask them these things.

 
Mark McKinnon

Former media adviser to President Bush

Mark McKinnon

[Political commentator] Pat Buchanan said the Nixon administration, faced with the networks and their commentators, decided to strike back and do two different things: one, to publicly criticize the news media, which had not happened before; and two, to go around the filter and directly to local media and others. Is that basically what's going on now? ...

I think Pat Buchanan was a smart guy, and I think every presidential administration since Nixon has tried to determine what [its] message is and how to best communicate [its] message in a way that it gets to the public unfiltered. Now, it's going to get filtered by the press in some way, and the job of the administration and the press office is to figure out a way to get that message out in the clearest way possible.

But is there a perception that there's political capital to be made by attacking the press, by saying that the press distorts, is biased toward conflict, and therefore you'll get political points by attacking the press?

I think there are other presidents that have attacked the press much more than this president. ...

... So what I understand from what you're saying is you don't think the White House press corps really is as powerful as it once was.

There's no question it's not as powerful as it once was. The White House press corps' influence is considerably diminished from years ago. They used to be the only funnel through which news was poured to the public, and today there are hundreds, if not thousands, of news channels beyond the Washington press corps for getting information out to the nation and to the world. ...

Why do you think that so many journalists believe that this administration not only wants to get around, but also wants to discredit what is called mainstream media?

I don't think it wants to discredit mainstream media so much as it wants to acknowledge that there is other media. I think mainstream media doesn't want to acknowledge the fact that there's other people out there. The mainstream media wants to hold onto the monopoly it once held. That has dissipated. And the mainstream media gets mad when the administration goes to some other news outlet.

 
Walter Pincus

Reporter, The Washington Post

Walter Pincus

But 35 years ago, with Branzburg [v. Hayes], there were no real protections for reporters, particularly in federal cases. And there was a truce, if you will, an armistice. There were guidelines that were promulgated in the Justice Department, in part because of Watergate and other revelations that were taking place. ... But it appears that truce is over; that armistice is over.

This may be a blip. It may be this administration, and it may pass.

What do you think?

It depends on who wins the congressional election; it depends on who wins the presidential election. It also depends on how we perform.

What do you mean?

How the press performs. Remember, what you just talked about came in the wake of Watergate, which is considered one of the great triumphs of journalism. So we were flying very high on the public mind.

We're not flying quite that high anymore. Whether that's earned or not earned, you can argue about. But I think the public is fickle. You get an administration that beats up on the press -- actually, there's a whole liberal establishment that beats up on the press for not being aggressive enough -- and that's what you live with. ...

 
Dana Priest

Reporter, The Washington Post

Dana Priest

There used to be, if you will, a de facto truce between reporters and, for instance, the Justice Department around confidential sources, ... being able to talk without fear of retribution. That's all broken down, hasn't it?

It has all broken down, little by little. Even the Valerie Plame leak investigation, I think we understood that the ground was shifting, but couldn't really judge how much and whether it would affect our own efforts to carry out reporting. They're now potentially looking at the Espionage Act to use against people who gather information rather than people who give information. The various leak investigations and the effort by the administration to intimidate, I really do think, the major media into just leaving this area. ...

But it also happens publicly when they make statements about damage to national security without ever really putting any meat behind that. ... The president called The New York Times un-American and aiding the enemy without ever really describing what it is he meant. But those words are very powerful. They definitely affect the public opinion of what we're doing. I can judge that from the negative e-mail I get. But I also think they weigh on editors and probably reporters -- although reporters seem to thrive to some extent on obstacles and challenges-- (Laughs)

We like rejection.

Yeah, we like rejection. But you have to think -- I mean, think it through: If you're a newspaper who has some experience in national security reporting, are you going to really unleash your reporters to go right into the heart of the beast and potentially cause a lot of trouble for your own institution? What happens when the government comes to you and says what you're about to publish might damage national security, but won't tell you how? How then, as an editor who needs the make that final decision, are you going to judge that case?

[Former CIA Director] Porter Goss has said he wants to see reporters in court, if you will, or in a grand jury, identifying their sources. Does that send a chill down your spine?

I think he's angry. But I also think that, between the courts and the public sense of who you are as an American, I'm not that worried. I think there are things that could happen over the next few years that would make us feel as if this is a really different world.

I get people commenting to me all the time about: "What are we becoming as a country? Thank you for writing about this." They are uneasy with where we are now. I think it's a period that we're going to go through before things settle out, and the media has a hugely important role during this time to bring out the things that are worth debating, and I think one of the reasons the government's reacted in the way it has is that it's not allowed that to happen. ... If people think the black sites are fine, that's not my job. I did my job by just showing them what tactics are being used in the war on terror.

What was your reaction when the CIA recently fired this official [Mary McCarthy], when you found out about it? ...

I think anything that is going to make it more difficult for me particularly or journalists to try to do their job in this area that's already difficult is not a good thing. That was my main reaction, that this was going to make it even more difficult for me and others to write in this area.

And then there was Sen. Pat Roberts [R-Kan.], the chairman of the Intelligence Committee, saying: "Right on. We've got to prosecute people who are leakers." So you've got the CIA, you've got the chairman of the committee, and you've got White House -- ... you've got everybody saying --

Well, not everybody. ... The people that you're talking about are all in one party, and they all support each other. They all have the same idea that they don't want this to be public, and that, to me, is the larger issue.

 
Brian Ross

Chief investigative correspondent, ABC News

Brian Ross

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.

What's changed?

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. ...

 
William Safire

Columnist, The New York Times

William Safire

I think the great check and balance that was built into the Constitution is under challenge. This pendulum has got to stop. It's got to come back again, and you've got to have a relationship between the government and the press that's adversarial but not an enemy.

 
Ron Suskind

Author, The One Percent Doctrine

Ron Suskind

Part of the playbook from the White House is to attack journalists, to say: "You are not an appropriate repository of public faith. Your role we do not feel is valid, to act as an intermediary between us and the public." The way you do that is treat the press just like any other interest group in Washington. There is no special role or special designation. We could be the health care lobby, or we could be the anti-gun lobby -- whatever. ...

In this case, what they do is they attack the journalists themselves. They did this to other journalists [as well as myself]. They do it in terms of access in some cases. "We didn't like what you wrote in The Washington Post or The New York Times, so you don't get any calls back for maybe quite a while. So now what are you going to do?"

With me, I don't have access issues. I don't need their access at this point. People come to my office -- they come to me. And frankly, the line goes around the block at this point. So they've got to come after me as an individual. After The New York Times Magazine piece runs in October of 2004, just two weeks before the election, ... there's this interesting moment where [then-Republic National Committee Chairman] Ed Gillespie is on CNN with Wolf Blitzer, and Gillespie says, "This story that's making all this news, well, we just want to tell you that we at the RNC have done some investigating on our own." Now Wolf is sort of startled, and he says, "Do tell." [Gillespie] says: "Yes, we have investigated Ron Suskind, and this is what we have uncovered. ... We checked a variety of records, and we found that Ron Suskind" -- and he holds up a sheet of paper -- "that Ron Suskind is a registered Democrat in the District of Columbia."

Ah, the smoking gun. ... And the fact is that some journalists I don't think register for political parties for this reason. I've never felt that was important. The fact is, I can vote for anybody; independents, Republicans, Democrats. But I'm a registered Democrat in the District of Columbia. It was listed as a crime.

What makes this administration so sure of themselves and so [bold] that they can just go ahead and do this and believe that they're going pull it off? ...

Their view from the beginning -- and Karen Hughes and I had a talk about this during that interview process -- was that they don't need the mainstream media. ... There are other avenues now for them to get their message out. There is the friendly media -- Fox News or Rush Limbaugh or the conservative press -- and ultimately they would attempt to keep the mainstream press away. ...

There's no doubt that the existence of the friendlier, conservative-leaning media was clearly an arrow in their quiver, a key arrow in their quiver, in terms of them saying, "Let's ignore the mainstream media as best we can." Will there be any penalty? ... I think their view was: "We don't think so. There are a lot of people out there that don't like reporters, who are not that happy with the television networks. There's been a movement for decades about truth and media and all those groups attacking them, calling them liberal." ...

 
Bob Woodward

Reporter, The Washington Post

Bob Woodward

In the wake of the Branzburg decision and Watergate, the Justice Department promulgated guidelines -- guidelines that became more of a public recognition that reporters needed some protection for their sources. It appears that that truce, if you will, has broken down --

Yeah, that's a good term. There has been, by and large, a truce for a good number of decades on this --

-- in the federal courts and federal procedure. And it's the Justice Department that has to do these investigations, and the Justice Department is run by the White House, basically.

Yes.

So the Justice Department and the FBI is being involved in investigations of reporters for leaks of information, whether it's [Rule] 6(e) material or national security information, right? And there's willingness to subpoena reporters, which FBI officials have said to us was always the reason they never liked these cases, because they could never subpoena the reporters until now. So things have changed.

That's obvious, that it has changed. Your question, though, was, does it mean it's more hostile than it was in the Nixon administration? I don't see it, because they had much more to protect in the Nixon era.

That doesn't mean this isn't real or serious. My sense of it is that it is one of the many things they haven't totally thought through. I think it's kind of, "Investigate leaks; go out and do this." You hear about it, and as a journalist, I think it's really just awful public policy, unless they can really show serious damage. And I haven't seen any evidence of serious damage yet.

No? The president of the United States publicly praised these two [San Francisco Chronicle] reporters in the BALCO [Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative baseball steroids] case for their reporting, saying it was in the public interest and that it was a great thing to do. Yet they're now threatened with jail.

My point is exactly that: I don't think they've thought this through. I think it is a clumsy war on the press, and it's got its own internal contradictions; namely, they don't have a good case of saying, "Look, these people got killed because of a national security leak, or this happened because of that leak."

So you just think they're clumsy?

Isn't that [the] evidence?

Well, I don't know. Because there's the BALCO case, these two reporters for the San Francisco Chronicle and the steroid situation. They've already jailed a video blogger [Josh Wolf]. … They say it's a federal case. He doesn't want to give up his videotape because he's afraid they want him to identify people. He's in prison, and he's going to be there until July.

It's an outrage that they would do something like that. And you've pointed out the inconsistency of the president praising the reporters who got the information about baseball steroids, and then they're investigating these people.

Look, there is such a thing as public policy and public interest. And based on the information available now, I don't think anything has really been damaged or harmed. Maybe there are cases that will come down the pike, but what they ought to do is just stop this and let the press do its job, as we make our own mistakes and have our own problems.

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posted feb. 13, 2007; last updated feb. 27, 2007

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