Is the NSA Wiretapping Reporters?

Andrea Mitchell asks some curious questions that suggest at least one journalist may have been caught up in a recently disclosed domestic eavesdropping program.

On Tuesday, NBC’s Andrea Mitchell conducted what is quickly becoming an infamous interview with the New York Times’ James Risen, author of the new book State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration and the guy who, along with Eric Lichtblau, broke the domestic spying story in the Times last month.

During the interview, she asked him a couple curious questions, which caught the attention of some bloggers:

Mitchell: Do you have any information about reporters being swept up in this net?

Risen: No, I don’t. It’s not clear to me. That’s one of the questions we’ll have to look into [in] the future. Were there abuses of this program or not? I don’t know the answer to that

Mitchell: You don’t have any information, for instance, that a very prominent journalist, Christiane Amanpour, might have been eavesdropped upon?

Risen: No, no I hadn’t heard that.

Yesterday afternoon, AmericaBlog noted the startling implication: one would assume that if Mitchell asked such a specific question about a reporter possibly having been wiretapped, someone gave her some information alluding to this possibility. Then, a few hours later, NBC apparently cut the Amanpour question from the online transcript.

Late last night, Mediabistro’s TVNewser, having asked NBC for an explanation, posted the network’s statement:

“Unfortunately this transcript was released prematurely. It was a topic on which we had not completed our reporting, and it was not broadcast on ‘NBC Nightly News’ nor on any other NBC News program. We removed that section of the transcript so that we may further continue our inquiry.”

That raises more questions than it answers. As Attytood wrote last night, some back story helps illuminate why Amanpour might have been targeted. “Recent reporting would have brought her into direct contact with members of al Qaeda. In August 2002, not long after Bush began to authorize the warrantless spying program, Amanpour worked with CNN’s Nic Robertson on a special that was billed as an inside view of al-Qaeda. Actually, it was Robertson who did the heavy lifting on this one, smuggling 64 purported al Qaeda videotapes — showing terrorist training exercises and the like — out of Afghanistan.”

So, there’s that. And it’s obvious that someone, somewhere is talking, and Mitchell apparently found the information compelling enough to ask Risen about it. As Josh Marshall writes, “Despite the fact that it’s framed as a question, Mitchell inevitably becomes in some sense a fact witness for the underlying claim. She legitimizes the question and strongly suggests she has at least some evidence that it is true.”

It is important to keep in mind that Mitchell might have some information that she doesn’t find wholly credible, but was simply curious to find out if Risen knew more. We don’t know if other journalists have been tipped to the possibility that Amanpour was wiretapped, but now that the cat is out of the bag, you can bet that sources are being squeezed all around the Beltway this morning, and the scoop — if there is one — isn’t just NBC’s to run with any more.

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Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.