The Times’s Risen, in particular, is still haunted by an investigation that has been turned upside down and in whose crosshairs he now finds himself. In January 2008, Risen received a federal subpoena, issued by a grand jury in Alexandria, Virginia, which demanded that he testify about the identities of his confidential sources for a chapter in his 2006 book, State of War. Though the chapter for which Risen was subpoenaed described a botched CIA operation designed to foil Iran’s nuclear program—information that never appeared in the Times—Risen’s book also contained the information about the NSA’s warrantless surveillance program that he and Lichtblau had reported but that the Times had sat on for more than a year at the administration’s request. Risen’s decision to publish the information in his book was a prime impetus for the Times’s decision to revisit the issue and ultimately publish the domestic-snooping information in December 2005.
Risen has said he will resist the subpoena, even if he has to go to jail. And though he has some of his profession’s highest achievements to show for his work—the aforementioned Pulitzer and several nonfiction books on intelligence matters—they have done little to ward off the sense of anxiety and anger over his Kafkaesque predicament: “I do think one of the great ironies is that I may be the only one who goes to jail out of all this,” Risen said in May, “while Congress is trying to give immunity to the telephone companies.”
Even before the subpoena was delivered to his lawyers this past January, some of Risen’s contacts were being subpoenaed to appear before the same grand jury. “The intimidation begins with the document itself,” says one Risen contact, who was subpoenaed and who asked to remain anonymous. “ ‘You are commanded to appear’—that will get your attention. It’s delivered by a couple FBI guys.”
The leak investigations, concern about government scrutiny of them and their contacts, partisan attacks on their ethics and patriotism, and hours huddled with lawyers have taken a toll on reporters. “It is certainly something you worry about every day,” says Lichtblau, who covers the Justice Department for the Times. “It has an effect on how you do the job, an effect on the people you talk to.” In his book Bush’s Law: The Remaking of American Justice, Lichtblau amplifies this point with a story of a very close friend who worked in the government. After Lichtblau’s domestic-spying piece and a subsequent, related piece on the swift banking-transaction network appeared, his friend’s bosses “told him that he would either have to end his friendship with me, or leave the government,” Lichtblau says.
“It’s a witch hunt,” Risen says. “They are trying to shut us down. It’s the most secretive administration in modern history.”
Perhaps nothing is more demoralizing, though, than the sense that journalism’s most groundbreaking investigations did not yield the kind of public accountability, congressional investigations, and reform that past eras have seen—that the system of democratic checks and balances, of which the press is only one part, is broken. Most of the abuses of the last eight years were pursued and exposed not by Congress, but by the press. “I have found that the stories which most anger and haunt journalists are not necessarily the ones with the most violence,” says Bruce Shapiro, the executive director of the Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma. “They are the stories in which we felt our intervention to have accomplished nothing. What’s really striking with the Risen story is precisely that sense of powerlessness: they committed this great act of journalism, and broke a story of a violation of federal law that raises fundamental questions about abuses of power in our society. And then the great institutions of society don’t respond, but instead turn around and say, ‘Fuck you.’ That is a huge invalidation of all the work, and further betrayal of our sense as journalists of what’s right.”
The system did not work, and is still not working. When the stories on black-site prisons and domestic wiretapping broke in late 2005, the Democrats were still a minority in Congress, and Republicans largely protected the administration from scrutiny. But even after the Democrats won majorities in the House and Senate in the 2006 midterm elections, their interest in high-profile investigations of controversial administration behavior on the national-security front remained muted. Part of the explanation, says Dana Priest, who wrote the Post’s CIA-prison story, is that the information in her piece and the Times’s NSA report is “all classified. For an informed member of Congress, if they had a secret briefing and read my story, they are still hamstrung from discussing it, because they had the secret briefing.”