The current NSA spying story is the latest chapter in one that that started in September 2001, and began to be uncovered in 2003. That’s when two reporters in the New York Times D.C. bureau—James Risen covering the CIA, Eric Lichtblau the Justice department—independently begin to pull on the threads of a fascinating story.
Unlike the recent document dump by a single source, Lichtblau and Risen were working with multiple sources, who were telling them different details about some kind of new surveillance project the Bush administration had launched. Though the two were casual newsroom acquaintances, they hadn’t worked together before. Each worked their sources for months before investigative editor Rebecca Corbett suggested that they might be working on different ends of the same story and they began to collaborate on their reporting about what they called “The Program.”
The three—Lichtblau, Risen, and Corbett—were an unlikely combination. Lichtblau was Ivy League and looked it, with a classic, direct style of questioning that was blunt and to the point. A large man who seems more like an amiable detective than a reporter, Risen, also an Ivy Leaguer, was the son of a railroad man with little patience for self-important elites. Rebecca Corbett had recently arrived at the Times from the Baltimore Sun, where she had edited David Simon, who later named a character for her in his show The Wire. She entered with an outsider’s indifference to the long-running feuds of the various factions within the Times. I was later hired by HBO to write a script about their story.