National security reporting, post-9/11

National security reporting had become more challenging since the September 11, 2001 attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center. First of all, the national security apparatus had grown exponentially. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), National Security Agency (NSA), Department of Defense and others had increased spending and hired more staff and contractors with top-security clearance. By 2011, the number of people with security clearance hit 4.2 million.[5]

The government’s ability to spy on both foreign and domestic entities was also enhanced. The 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) already permitted warrantless electronic surveillance of individuals outside the US, as well as surveillance of US citizens after obtaining permission from the FISA court, a panel of judges that met in secret. With time, domestic surveillance increased. In October 2001, President George W. Bush secretly authorized the NSA to collect domestic Web, email and phone records. FISA amendments in 2007 and 2008 gave private companies immunity if they cooperated with US intelligence collection.

At the same time, the executive branch’s reaction to security leaks had become more punitive. For example, in 2005 New York Times reporter Judith Miller was jailed for 85 days for refusing to identify the source that gave her the name of a CIA operative.[6] The Department of Justice under the administrations of both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama threatened revitalized prosecution against leakers and recipients of classified information under the 1917 Espionage Act. In fact, from 2009 to early 2013, the Obama Administration brought felony criminal charges against six individuals under the Espionage Act for leaking information to reporters (by comparison, the total for all previous administrations was three).

As a result, many confidential sources dried up. “Several reporters who have covered national security in Washington for decades tell me that the environment has never been tougher or information harder to dislodge,” then-New York Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson told the 2012 conference of Investigative Reporters and Editors.[7] Nonetheless, important stories went public. In December 2005, for example, the New York Times published a story by James Risen and Eric Lichtblau, which detailed how President George W. Bush had authorized the NSA to wiretap the international communications of Americans without court warrants.[8] In 2006, USA Today broke the story that the NSA under Bush had collected telephone records for millions of Americans.[9]

Controversially, the Times had held its story for a year at the administration’s request. White House officials contended that the story would alert would-be terrorists that they were being watched. The Times published—it claims coincidentally—as Risen prepared to release a book that included a chapter on the NSA wiretapping. Bill Keller, then the Times’ executive editor, wrote: “We published the story when we did because after much hard work it was fully reported, checked and ready, and because, after listening respectfully to the administration's objections, we were convinced there was no good reason not to publish it.”[10]

The government did subpoena Risen but, ironically, for information in his book other than the NSA material. Risen successfully fought a 2008 subpoena to testify to a federal grand jury about his source for an account in the book about a botched covert CIA program to feed misinformation to Iran’s nuclear weapons researchers. Risen had written a story about it in 2003, but the White House asked the Times not to publish, and the paper complied.[11] But in 2010, former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling was indicted under the Espionage Act for leaking classified information to Risen, and the subpoena for Risen was renewed in April. Risen again refused to testify, citing a reporter’s privilege to keep sources confidential.[12]

Wikileaks. Meanwhile, national security reporting and the relationship between media and government again took front stage in 2010. From July through November, the New York Times—in partnership with Der Spiegel and the Guardian—broke three sets of stories based on secret US documents provided to the whistleblower website, Wikileaks. The third set revealed the contents of confidential diplomatic cables.

The Times and its partners, in contrast to Wikileaks on previous occasions, were scrupulous about redacting the material in order to refrain from harming individuals or ongoing operations. The Times also let the White House know in advance that it was publishing, and sought comment. In some ways, the Wikileaks series provided a textbook example of the US media’s approach to national security stories: inform the government and listen to its concerns, protect individuals, and make public as much material as possible.


[5] It is difficult to compare this number to previous years, because formal reporting was not required until 2010. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) kept rough estimates, which while not reliable were the only data available. In 1995, the GAO estimated 3.2 million people held security clearances. Source: Steven Aftergood, “Number of security clearances soars,” Secrecy News, September 20, 2011. See: http://fas.org/blogs/secrecy/2011/09/clearances/

[6] Adam Liptak, “Reporter Jailed After Refusing to Name Source,” New York Times, July 7, 2005. See: http://www.nytimes.com/2005/07/07/politics/07leak.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

[7] Dan Froomkin, “The Case for a secrecy beat,” June 13, 2013, Columbia Journalism Review, http://www.cjr.org/united_states_project/the_case_for_a_secrecy_beat.php?page=all

[8] James Risen and Eric Lichtblau, “Bush lets US spy on callers without courts,” New York Times, December 15, 2006. See: http://www.nytimes.com/2005/12/16/politics/16program.html?pagewanted=all

[9] Leslie Cauley, “NSA has massive database of Americans’ phone calls,” USA Today, May 11, 2006. See: http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/washington/2006-05-10-nsa_x.htm

[10] Margaret Sullivan, “More on the Eavesdropping Article,” New York Times, posted December 31, 2005. Retrieved June 21, 2014. http://publiceditor.blogs.nytimes.com/2005/12/31/more-on-the-eavesdropping-article/?module=Search&mabReward=relbias%3Aw

[11] Michael Isikoff, “Ex-CIA officer charged with leak to Times reporter. CIA Gave Iran Nuclear Blueprints?,” Global Research, January 21, 2011. See: http://www.globalresearch.ca/ex-cia-officer-charged-with-leak-to-times-reporter-cia-gave-iran-nuclear-blueprints/22884

[12] The case remained open in 2013.