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On Sources

Thomas Joscelyn writes in the Weekly Standard about James Risen and his sources:

On NBC’s “Today” show this morning, New York Times scribe Jim Risen told Katie Couric that he hopes he will not have to reveal his sources to a grand jury and declared his story to be the exact opposite of the Plame case. Risen claims his sources revealed information for the best possible reasons and he went on to declare those sources “patriots.”

According to media critic Mark Finkelstein, “time and again, Risen defended his sources as having the ‘purest’ and ‘best’ motives, springing entirely from their concern for the rule of law.”

But if history is any indication, Risen should be a bit more skeptical of his sources and their motives, in general.

If for some reason you weren’t already convinced that politics, not national security, is driving these leaks . . .

As has been pointed out previously (here and here), Risen’s sources led him astray regarding the interrogation of senior al Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah. Risen’s anonymous sources told him that Zubaydah had denied that Saddam and al Qaeda were working together and he reported this bogus account (“Threats and Responses: C.I.A.; Captives Deny Qaeda Worked With Baghdad”) in the New York Times on June 9, 2003. […]

What Risen’s sources did not tell him–and we did not learn until more than a year later, when the Senate Intelligence Committee issued its report on prewar intelligence–was that Zubaydah “also said, however, that any relationship would be highly compartmented and went on to name al-Qaida members who he thought had good contacts with the Iraqis. For instance, Abu Zubaydah indicated that he had heard that an important al-Qaida associate, Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi, and others had good relationships with Iraqi intelligence.”

That portion of Zubaydah’s interrogation never made it into Risen’s June 9, 2003 account. Why? Because his anonymous sources–the same types he now tells us have the “purest” and “best” motives and who are “patriots”–didn’t tell him that.


Now I can understand why a reporter might want to maintain access to anonymous sources that occupy the 7th floor offices of various agencies best know by their three-letter acronyms. For one thing they’re the ones that let you on the compound in the first place, they give you the juiciest stories, provide introductions to other well-connected individuals, and there is a certain coolness factor in being able to mention in Georgetown pundit salons that you got this, that or the other thing straight from the highest horse’s mouth.

However, if you harbor the faintest desire to actually be objective or to tell a complete story and not a spun one, national security reporters would do well to seek out intelligence officers who actually worked for a living in the last decade (no, this is not a sales pitch) as opposed to those who spent that same time politicking their way up the ladder. Granted, you’re talking about people who were not mahogany row material but they tend to know what they’re talking about and their knowledge is gained by hands-on experience, not bullet points on a PowerPoint slide. Would our imaginary reporter alienate their precious high-level sources? Probably, which is why national security stories tend to be one-sided and incomplete. You wouldn’t have much of a career if after your first story no one would return your phone calls.

One has to wonder however, in the age of information, just how useful a handful of “suits” are when pitted against a legion of working stiffs? I’m waiting for the reporter who is willing to try and do a story on Able Danger, communications intercepts, or domestic surveillance based on people who actually have mined data, listen in on phone calls, or tailed someone; people who are more likely to provide a fact-based account and who are not interested in preparing themselves for their next SES assignment or political appointment.

Michael Tanji

Michael Tanji

Michael Tanji spent nearly 20 years in the US intelligence community. Trained in both SIGINT and HUMINT disciplines he has worked at the Defense Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, and the National Reconnaissance Office. At various points in his career he served as an expert in information warfare, computer network operations, computer forensics, and indications and warning. A veteran of the US Army, Michael has served in both strategic and tactical assignments in the Pacific Theater, the Balkans, and the Middle East.