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Bush, the CIA and America: 'State of War'

In December, New York Times and Eric Lichtblau broke the news that the Bush administration had authorized a domestic eavesdropping program. Risen's new book is State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration.


Other segments from the episode on January 23, 2006

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, January 23, 2006: Interview with James Risen; Review of the new box set “Miles Davis: the cellar door sessions 1970.”


DATE January 23, 2006 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest James Risen is The New York Times reporter whose new book describes
the National Security Agency's secret domestic eavesdropping program. It is a
story he broke in The New York Times last month with Times reporter Eric
Lichtblau. We're going to talk about the impact this revelation has had and
examine other secret programs Risen uncovers in his new book. It is called
"State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration.

Let's start with the NSA story. In 2002, a few months after the September
11th attacks, President Bush authorized the National Security Agency to
monitor the international phone calls and e-mails of Americans linked to
suspected terrorist without first getting warrants. The day after the story
was published in the Times, President Bush admitted that he had authorized the
program and said that revealing the existence of the secret program damages
our national security. The president continues to defend the program.

Did you expect that the president would confirm the existence of the secret
surveillance program that you uncovered?

Mr. JAMES RISEN: No, actually. I was kind of surprised by that. The day
our story ran in The New York Times, the first day the White House refused to
say anything, and so I kind of thought that was going to be their strategy.
And then I was surprised, I think it was Saturday morning the president came
out and kind of issued a statement confirming it. And, I guess, they changed
their public relations strategy overnight.

GROSS: Why do you think he did confirm the program? Do you have any clue?

Mr. RISEN: Well, I think they have decided--as you see this week they are
rolling out a series of press events to defend the program, leading up to the
president's visit the NSA on Wednesday. I think they've decided to kind of
aggressively support and defend his decision to authorize this program. And,
I guess, you know, Karl Rove talked about this, I think it was Friday.


Mr. RISEN: I gather there is--they have made a calculation that politically,
you know, they can defend this and kind of make the case that this is
necessary part of the war on terrorism. And so I think they are going to be
more aggressively supporting it and defending it publicly.

GROSS: I'm going to ask you to explain the technology that makes it possible
for NSA to be doing the kind of surveillance you discovered it was doing?

Mr. RISEN: I'm no technical expert, but my understanding from talking to
people about this is that what they are doing is they've gotten access to the
key major telecommunications switches. I guess the easiest way to think of
them is they are at the interface between the domestic telecommunications
network and the international telecommunications networks. And that as phone
calls, cell phone calls, e-mails, all get routed in and out of the United
States, a lot of them have to go through these switches. They are kind of
like gateways in and out of the United States. And that by getting kind of
trap door access to those switches through cooperation with some
telecommunications companies, the NSA basically is able to get into the
bloodstream of the American telecommunications network and able to eavesdrop
on e-mail and telephone calls as they are routed in and out of the country.

GROSS: Now, the way I understand it, the NSA has not necessarily been
actually listening to all the phone calls or reading all the e-mails that it
is monitoring. Part of what it is trying to do is to just find patterns.
`Who is calling who? Who is e-mailing who?' Is that right?

Mr. RISEN: Well, it does both. It eavesdrops on individuals, some
individuals. Then our understanding of it is there is a broader aspect to
this where they are conducting what some people call pattern analysis of
looking at broader numbers of telecommunications to see when people are
calling, how often they are getting called, what time of day they are getting
called. And to try and develop some kind of, you know, trends that they can
use in their investigations.

But at the heart of the program, they are actually eavesdropping on
individuals without search warrants, about 500 people at any one time inside
the United States and another five to 7,000 people overseas who are in
communication with those people or who are involved with communications that
are what they call "transit traffic," which is a kind of arcane term to
describe the communications that are routed through the United States
telecommunications network but which really are like a phone call or an e-mail
that is, say, going from Asia to Europe and just gets routed through the
United States telecommunications network. In the past, because those
communications were inside the United States, the NSA was not supposed to
listen to those, at least not while it was being routed through the United

GROSS: The Bush administration has been bypassing the Federal Intelligence
Surveillance Act, which says that you need to get a special warrant from a
special court to tap phones or conduct surveillance on e-mail. And this
special court is supposed to respond immediately. Do you have any idea what
the Bush administration's standards have been to authorize this surveillance?

Mr. RISEN: Well, what they've done in this case is, as you said, bypass the
court. And that's the crux of the controversy because that court was created
in a law in 1978 specifically to deal with the kind of eavesdropping that they
want to do now and that the NSA is doing to provide court-approved search
warrants for national security electronic surveillance inside the United
States against spies and terrorist. And the problem that they have in this
case is that the administration says, `Well, we want to do so many of those
and we want to do them so fast, that the FISA court was ill-equipped to handle
all of that.' The critics of the administration argue that, you know, there
are a number of ways that FISA could have handled this and that there are also
a number of ways that the Bush administration could have either gone to
Congress or gone to the courts to seek approval for this, but they decided
instead to do it on their own.

The chief judge of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court, who was a
woman federal judge, had growing concerns about the program. And one of the
reasons that she appeared to be concerned and that there were growing concerns
within the Justice Department at that time was the possibility, the potential
that the government was seeking search warrants for eavesdropping on people in
other cases that were not covered by the secret NSA program, but using as
justification and evidence to get those warrants, information that had been
gathered through this warrantless search.

In other words, there was a growing concern that possibly illegally obtained
evidence from this NSA operation was being used then in courts to get search
warrants in other cases. And so that concern was growing in 2004. And that
was one of the issues, I think, that led both to the concerns by the chief
judge of the FISA court--who was only notified of the program and was never
asked to approve it--and I think at the Justice Department. And that's a
concern that is still there today. And after our story ran, one of the judges
on the FISA court resigned because he had never known about the program until
our story ran and is concerned about the possibility that search warrants had
been issued based on potentially illegally obtained evidence.

GROSS: Do you have any idea what standards the NSA has used to decide when it
is appropriate for them to bypass the court and just directly conduct

Mr. RISEN: No. One of the problems they have in this--one of the things
they have done in this program is that they have allowed NSA to decide on its
own who to listen to. The NSA doesn't even have to get approval for each
specific eavesdropping operation from the Justice Department or the White
House or anybody else.

For the first couple of years the program was in existence, it is our
understanding that there weren't any even kind of checklists approved by the
Justice Department for use by the NSA in deciding who to listen to. And there
were a number of people in the government who began to get deeply concerned
that there were virtually no management or oversight controls over the
program. So in 2004, the program was briefly suspended because of those
concerns, and finally the Justice Department began to audit the program in
2004. And they imposed a--they created a checklist in which they gave a
checklist to the NSA to decide how to determine probable cause when and if
they wanted to eavesdrop on somebody. But that checklist was something that
NSA itself was then able to conduct on its own and they didn't have to get any
approvals. And so the real question, I think, in the conduct of this
operation is that there has been no oversight or virtually no oversight,
either from within the Bush administration or from Congress or the courts.

GROSS: After your book "State of War" was published, you reported that a top
Justice Department official objected to parts of the program in 2004 and at
the time, John Ashcroft, who is then head of the Justice Department, was
hospitalized for gallbladder surgery. He was in intensive care, which is why
his top official was asked. And his name is James Comey. What do you know
about why James Comey was unwilling to give his approval to certifying certain
parts of the program, and do you know what parts they were?

Mr. RISEN: No, we don't. We don't have a lot more detail of that other than
the fact that both Comey and Ashcroft raised concerns. One of the things that
they--you know, the president has made the point publicly that he reauthorizes
this program, I think he said something like every 45 days. Part of the
reauthorization, as I understand it, is that the attorney general has to
recertify it roughly at the same period that the president does, and that
there was for some reason in 2004 a growing concern within the Justice
Department about the lack of controls over the program, even though the
program had been in existence by that time for a couple of years.

And while Ashcroft was in the hospital, Comey was serving--I think it's
accurate to say--he was serving as acting attorney general. His normal job is
deputy attorney general. And I think it appears that the White House went to
Comey for recertification of the program, at the same time the president was
reauthorizing it, and he apparently declined. Which led to an extraordinary
meeting, I think, with Andy Card, the White House chief of staff, and perhaps
Alberto Gonzales, the White House counsel, going to the hospital to see
Ashcroft to try to get him to recertify. It appears that eventually they got
recertification. The question is what exactly happened in that meeting and
what was the level of concern by Ashcroft and Comey. And we don't really know
the answer to that.

GROSS: My guest is New York Times reporter James Risen. His new book is
called "State of War." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is New York Times reporter James Risen. Along with Times
reporter Eric Lichtblau, he broke the story of the National Security Agency's
secret domestic surveillance program. Risen writes about that and other
secret programs in his new book state of war.

How much do you know about how many Americans have been monitored as part of
this NSA program? And who has been monitored?

Mr. RISEN: Well, what we've been told is that they have been eavesdropping
without search warrants on approximately 500 people inside the United States
at any one time since early 2002 or late 2001. And that that number, those
people change over time. The actual people rotate in and out of who are being
eavesdropped on. And so we've been told that it is safe to assume that the
number of people who have actually been targeted under this program is in the
thousands, and that overseas, you know, the program has monitored five to
7,000 people at any one time. And they have been listening to both telephone
and e-mail traffic.

GROSS: The Justice Department has asked for search logs from Google,
Microsoft, Yahoo! and America Online. Google has refused to hand those over.
And the Justice Department wants this as part of, oh, to investigate online
users of pornography. Do you see that case as being connected at all to the
NSA investigation you have been conducting?

Mr. RISEN: Yeah, I do. I think one of the real issues for the Bush
administration, at least in the second term, is the nature and extent of their
use of national security arguments to engage in domestic intelligence
operations inside the United States. And there we have seen a number of
stories on a number of different fronts, including Pentagon domestic spying
operations against anti-war protesters and other dissidents. And I think
that, you know, one of the things we have really got--trying to report on now
is the extent to which there is a broader domestic intelligence operation that
goes beyond just the NSA and what we have heard about.

GROSS: What has for you been the most surprising result of your investigation
into the secret NSA program? For example, now that the Senate Judiciary
Committee and Senate Intelligence Committees are planning hearings on the
surveillance, there is a couple of court test cases that are about to begin.
So what are, as far as you are concerned, the most surprising results?

Mr. RISEN: Well, I guess, you know, I think the biggest thing to me--Eric
and I weren't sure anybody would really notice this story at first, you know.
You never know when you write a story whether people will pay attention to it
or not and whether it will have any impact or not. And, I guess, I've just
been kind of stunned by the impact of it overall. I wasn't sure what would
happen. And I think it is interesting to me that a number of conservatives
have been upset by what the administration has been doing. And I think this
is one of a few stories, or a few cases, I think, recently where the criticism
and kind of the alignment of people on where they stand on this issue isn't
quite so partisan as a number of other issues. And I guess that's slightly
surprising to me, too.

GROSS: When asked if this surveillance program might be an impeachable
offense, you know, whether the president's authorization of this program might
be an impeachable offense, Al Gore said that it might be. Do you think it
might be an impeachable offense?

Mr. RISEN: Oh, I don't know. You know, that's a political issue, and
impeachment is a political process. It's not really a legal process or a--and
I'm just a reporter so I don't get to vote on that one way or the other, so it
doesn't really matter what I think. I think that it is interesting that this
has, you know, stirred up so much emotion on both sides. And I think it is
interesting that the president this week is going to make such an aggressive
defense of it. And I think it is quite possible that once the whole debate on
this, you know, plays out, that the American people will decide that this is a
good thing for the president to do and he should keep on doing it. I just
like to report on things and then let other people have the, you know, their
political say.

GROSS: You mentioned how aggressive the Bush administration will be this week
in supporting the program. There are high-placed people from the Bush
administration who will be speaking about the program nearly every day this
week. Have more people come forward from the NSA or from other sectors from
the intelligence world, since you and Eric Lichtblau broke this story, to tell
you more about what went on behind the scenes? In other words, are you
getting more information as a result of having broken the story?

Mr. RISEN: Well, I don't want to get into anything about sources, but I can
say that we are still reporting on the story and we are still writing more
stories, and that, you know, we are able to continue to find out new things.

GROSS: One person has come forward, Russell Tice, to say that he was one of
the sources for your story. And my understanding is you have been unwilling
to confirm or deny that. Why is that?

Mr. RISEN: Well, I just don't--I just have a policy, I'm not going to
discuss anything about my sources.

GROSS: Now, this person who I mentioned, Russell Tice, might be prosecuted
for leaking information. And the president has said he wants to find out who
leaked the information and prosecute them. Are you worried about your sources
being prosecuted for leaking?

Mr. RISEN: Well, I think the one thing I feel strongly about is that this is
a classic case of whistle blowers who have come forward for the right reasons
because they believe that something illegal and possibly unconstitutional was
going on. Whether that is illegal or is unconstitutional is for other people
to decide besides me, but that was how they felt and they came forward in the
best traditions, I think, of American democracy, because they felt that the
American people really had to know about this in order to have a debate and a
public discussion about it. And so I think these people are patriots, and I
think that any attempt by the government to target them or to go after them I
think would be tragic.

GROSS: James Risen is a New York Times reporter and author of the new book,
"State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration."
Risen will be back in the second half of the show. I am Terry Gross and this


GROSS: Coming up, how the CIA gave nuclear blueprints to the Iranians with
errors intended to mislead them. We continue our conversation with James
Risen about his new book on the secret history of the CIA and the Bush
administration. And guest critic Kevin Whitehead reviews a new Miles Davis
box set.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with New York Times reporter
James Risen. He is one of the reporters who broke the story about the
National Security Agency's secret domestic surveillance program. Risen writes
about that and other secret programs in his new book, "State of War: The
Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration."

Many of the sources in his book are anonymous. I asked him about the
difficulty of naming sources when writing about intelligence issues,
particularly when covering the ultrasecretive NSA.

Mr. RISEN: It is really a Catch-22 because people will criticize you for
using anonymous sources, but then if you name your sources, they could go to
jail. And then that leaves you with the alternative of not writing anything
about these agencies or these operations, and so I think that really the only
alternative is to grant anonymity to people and to do it in a way that, you
know--you've got to be careful on how you do it and the sources you use. And
I've learned over the years through hard experience, I think, how best to try
to do that. It is not always easy, but I think it is absolutely essential or
you can't write about these things.

GROSS: You say in the book that many of your sources that you draw on for the
book came to you or spoke to you because of their growing disillusionment.
What can you tell us about what was disillusioning your sources with the way
intelligence was run? And these are sources both in the NSA and in the CIA.

Mr. RISEN: I think one of the things that struck me when I first started
working on this book is not just in the intelligence community but throughout
the Bush administration. The people I was meeting, a lot of the--many of them
who had recently left the Bush administration over the last year or two, you
looked at them and they had a dazed look as if they had just been in a car
crash and like they were trying to sort out what had happened. And I got a
sense from a number of people who were, you know, just leaving the
administration, that they were really wondering themselves what went wrong.

And I was thinking, after a while, that this must have been what it was like
during the Vietnam War when a lot of people started leaving the Nixon and
Johnson administrations during Vietnam. And I think there's a lot--that's one
of the parallels. Not that Iraq and Vietnam are similar but that the
experience within the government for, say, midlevel professionals I think in
many ways is similar that they are still today, after leaving government,
still trying to sort out what exactly happened to them and what happened to
the government. And it is fascinating to see that because I think there
was--as they look back, a number of these people feel like something went
wrong but they are not quite sure what. And so that's what I was trying to
sort out.

GROSS: Did sources tell you that they ever felt pressured by the Bush
administration to report selectively on the intelligence that they had or to
suppress intelligence that would contradict Bush administration positions?

Mr. RISEN: Well, that's one of the big questions everybody has been
wondering about since, you know, the failure to find WMD. I think that what I
concluded was that people felt a climate within the CIA, particularly among
the analysts and the people dealing with Iraq WMD, there was a climate created
that you knew what the right answer was. You knew the answer people wanted to
hear. Nobody ever wrote a memo saying, `This is the answer,' but you knew
what the answer was. And if you came up with an intelligence report that said
there was, you know, that somehow confirmed the existence of WMD, you knew
that that report went right to the top. And that if you raised skepticism
about any aspects of the intelligence, that you were either ignored or shunted
off to the side. And one of the things that I've tried to make clear in the
book, and I hope I have, is that it's not clear that anybody lied. I don't
think the president ever lied about these incidents of WMD. I don't think
George Tenet lied. I don't think anybody lied. I think they believed that
there was WMD. I know that they believe that there was WMD.

What the problem was was different. What I think the problem was was that a
number of people inside the CIA, a number of senior professionals, believed,
they assumed there was WMD, but they also knew that the intelligence proving
that case was not very good. They knew that the CIA did not have strong
intelligence to corroborate what the Bush administration was saying publicly,
even though they assumed that it was right. And the people who raised doubts
about the quality of the intelligence, not the existence of WMD, but the
quality of the underlying intelligence, were either ignored or shunted to the

GROSS: The White House asked The New York Times, because this information was
published in The New York Times before it was published in your book, just
shortly before. The White House asked The New York Times not to publish your
article, arguing that it could jeopardize continuing investigations and alert
would-be terrorists that they might be under scrutiny. Now, you had gathered
this information about a year before it was published in the Times, so that
the Times held it for about a year. There have a been a lot of questions
about why the Times held it so long and why did they publish it when they did.
Were they afraid they were going to be scooped by their own reporter when your
book was published? I know in the past you have been unwilling to discuss
this. Any chance you are willing to talk about it today?

Mr. RISEN: No, I just think that, you know, to me when The New York Times
published this, I think it was a great public service. And it was something
that has started a national debate on the substance of this issue. And I just
think that that's the important point. And people who criticize the Times
forget that we are the ones who broke the story, and I didn't see anybody else
breaking that story, so.

GROSS: My guest is New York Times reporter James Risen, whose new book is
called "State of War." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is New York Times reporter James Risen. Along with Times
reporter Eric Lichtblau, he broke the story of the National Security Agency's
secret domestic surveillance program. Risen writes about that and other
secret programs in his new book, "State of War."

There are several other pretty controversial programs that you've uncovered
here. What did you think was going to be the most controversial when you were
on the verge of publishing the book?

Mr. RISEN: Well, I guess the NSA operation I figured would be the most
controversial. You know, there is a number of other things in there that are,
you know, I think interesting. One of them relates to President Bush and
whether or not he was briefed formally and officially briefed by the CIA on
the details of the agency's enhanced interrogation techniques that they use in
their secret prisons around the world.

GROSS: Well, you suggest in the book that you think members of the Bush
administration intentionally did not tell the president about interrogation
techniques so that the president would have deniability.

Mr. RISEN: Yeah, what I was told was that the CIA inspector general staff
was told that the president as not formally briefed on the details of the
interrogation techniques and that Vice President Cheney and Condoleeza Rice
and a few other senior aides were briefed, but that they didn't--there was a
sense that you didn't want to go into the Oval Office and go into graphic
detail about these specific techniques. And I think there are people at the
CIA who later regretted that they didn't look the president in the eye and go
over these in detail. Although they did feel that they had...

GROSS: Why do you think they regretted it?

Mr. RISEN: Well, because now it is a big controversy over, you know, the use
of harsh interrogation techniques...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. RISEN: ...and the torture debate and the debate over secret prisons.
Although they did get, you know, the administration approved the use of these
techniques. The question really is not over their approval, it's more a
matter of did the president want some kind of deniability so then he could go
out and say, you know, `I never authorized torture.' And I think one of the
issues for the CIA is that the CIA was the only agency that actually got high
level approval for the actions it was taking. But the techniques that were in
use there, I think, somehow this whole--one of the things I've really been
interested in trying to understand is how you began to use harsh interrogation
techniques, first against al-Qaeda captives in CIA custody, and then six
months or a year later, we end up having a scandal in a military-run facility
in Iraq where there is questions about interrogation techniques. And the
question that's never been adequately answered is: Did something migrate away
from CIA to the military? Or how did that all happen where suddenly, for the
first time in modern history, the US military is being accused of such, you
know, broad mistreatment of prisoners?

GROSS: I want to ask you about another program that you write about in your
book, "State of War," and this relates to something in the news right now,
which is that Iran is continuing with its nuclear program in spite of the
protests from the international community. You write about a program called
Merlin. What was this program?

Mr. RISEN: Well, back in 2000, about six years ago, the CIA arranged for a
Russian defector to give nuclear blueprints to the Iranians. And they were
supposedly flawed blueprints. And the idea behind the operation was to try
and get the Iranians to build a nuclear weapon based on these flawed
blueprints, and then it would be a dud. But the operation was considered not
to have been handled well, and it's not clear really whether actually the
blueprints actually aided the Iranians rather than tried to set them back.
And so there have been questions raised about how effective and how well
managed this was.

GROSS: Because this is supposed to be blueprints with flaws that would
mislead them.

Mr. RISEN: But the Russians--yeah.

GROSS: But some of the information in there was real information.

Mr. RISEN: Right.

GROSS: Tell the story about how the mistake was probably corrected by

Mr. RISEN: Well, what I was told was that the Russian defector could tell
immediately that there were flaws in the blueprints and that he was not
supposed to know that these were flawed. And so...

GROSS: This is the Russian defector who was supposed to be leaving these
plans for the Iranians to see.

Mr. RISEN: Yeah. Yeah. Right. Right. And so the question really raised
was if he, you know, he could see it--and he even sent them a letter
saying--sent the Iranians a letter saying, you know, `You will see that there
are'--I forget the exact working of the letter, but, `You will see, you know,
there are problems and, you know, you'll need more help,' or something like
that. And so the question really is: Did the Iranians--were they able to
parse these designs and find the good stuff and get rid of the bad stuff?
They have plenty of Russian and Chinese nuclear scientists who consult with
them who could have helped them with this. And even more importantly, AQ Khan
and his network gave the Iranians nuclear blueprints on their own some time

And so this operation probably was irrelevant to the larger debate, but what I
thought it showed was raised real questions about the CIA's handling of WMD
intelligence and whether or not they really know what they are doing when they
are talking, especially after Iraq, after we've seen how wrong they were about
everything about Iraq's weapons programs.

GROSS: Was this Merlin program controversial within the CIA?

Mr. RISEN: Well, it was pretty secret so I don't think there was too much
controversy. But, you know, there are people who have raised questions about

GROSS: And you also tell the story of an e-mail that inadvertently ended up
exposing all of the CIA spies that were in Iran. Will you tell us that story?

Mr. RISEN: Yeah. This happened in 2004. They had some kind of covert
communications procedures to communicate with a whole network of spies that
the CIA had in Iran. And a CIA officer communicating through this network
supposedly with only one spy, accidently downloaded information that could
help identify the entire network and downloaded it to this one agent. And
what I was told was that this did disrupt the entire network. The CIA now
claims, `No, no. We've done a big damage assessment and found out that this
didn't lead to arresting them all.' They have said that since my book came
out. But they don't deny that this huge mistake happened and that they had to
do one of the biggest damage assessments in their history to determine the
status of their Iranian network. Clearly, it put their entire spy network in
Iran at great risk at a minimum.

GROSS: President Bush has said about your investigation into the NSA program,
`My personal opinion is that it was a shameful act for someone to disclose
this very important program in a time of war. The fact that we are discussing
this program is helping the enemy.' What would you say to President Bush about

Mr. RISEN: Well, I would say that throughout American history, we've had a
debate over the balancing between national security and civil liberties and
that that debate has always ranged you know, there is spectrum of things
between the erosion of the privacy rights of American citizens vs. the needs
to secure the country. And that debate has gone back to, you know, the
earliest days of the Republic, and it continues today. And I think that's a
debate we are going to continue to have. And so I would say that it's
important for the public to be able to understand what its government is doing
in order to have that debate.

GROSS: What is it like for you now to have the country talking about your
story and your book, to have the president criticizing it, to have your
sources possibly facing indictment? You might be subpoenaed yourself. I
mean, there is just so much confl--controversy swirling around you right now.
I think a lot of reporters try to stay out of the story as much as possible,
Shine the light on the story and on the people they are writing about, but
there is so much light shining on you right now.

Mr. RISEN: Well, I try not to think about it.

GROSS: Is that hard?

Mr. RISEN: Until you just said to me, just said it that way, I hadn't
thought of it that way. No, you know, I just try to keep doing stories and...

GROSS: Surely you must feel the heat.

Mr. RISEN: Well, you know, my job is to write newspaper stories, so I'm
continuing to try to do that and just keep doing that.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. RISEN: Sure. Thanks for having me.

GROSS: James Risen is a New York Times reporter and author of the new book,
"State of War." Our interview was recorded this morning.

Here is trombonist Roswell Rudd playing a boogie woogie with a Mongolian band
from Rudd's new CD, "Blue Mongol."

(Soundbite of "Blue Mongol")

GROSS: Coming up, Kevin Whitehead reviews a new Miles Davis box set of his
1970 sessions at the club The Cellar Door. This is FRESH AIR.


* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Sessions 1970"

In 1968, trumpeter Miles Davis was leading an exploratory jazz group. By
1972, he was playing hard-core funk. In December 1970, Davis' music was
somewhere in the middle, when he took a band into Washington, DC's Cellar Door
for his last recordings in a nightclub setting. A new box set collects most
of the music recorded that week. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead has the review.

(Soundbite of "Miles Davis: The Cellar Door Sessions 1970")

Mr. KEVIN WHITEHEAD: When Miles Davis got a wah-wah pedal peddle in 1970,
skeptics asked, `Why not just play electric guitar?' After all, the peddle had
been invented so guitarists could mimic the wah-wah effects jazz trumpeters
got, plunger music. Miles' wah-wah had a different character, reason enough
to justify it. But he did seem intent on remaking his horn as a guitar. He'd
attack one note like a flat picker about to break a string. Miles had admired
Jimi Hendrix enough to attend his funeral in 1970, and there were moments
during the trumpeter's four nights at a Washington club a couple of months
later where he sounded like he wanted to be Hendrix riding a wave of feedback.

(Soundbite of "Miles Davis: The Cellar Door Sessions 1970")

Mr. WHITEHEAD: No jazz musician acted more like a rock star than Miles,
cranking up the volume, dressing like a fop and recording live at the
Fillmore. He told Jack DeJohnette to play like Hendrix's drummer Buddy Miles.
A few months before this Washington gig, the trumpeter had replaced jazz
bassist Dave Holland with a funky 19-year-old bass guitarist, Michael
Henderson, whom he'd stolen from Stevie Wonder.

(Soundbite of "Miles Davis: The Cellar Door Sessions 1970")

Mr. WHITEHEAD: It's still a bit shocking how the trumpeter with a pretty and
vulnerable tone embraced the whole loud distorted electric thing, the crunchy
sound of temperamental electric pianos in particular. The keyboard player
here is another jazz musician esteemed for his handmade acoustic sound, Keith
Jarrett. Jarrett has said he felt like the only member of the band on Davis'
wave length, even if Miles had told bassist Henderson to stay funky and not
follow Jarrett into jazz territory. This leads to bizarre moments when the
musicians play like they are in different rooms. In this case, Jarrett,
Michael Henderson and the meandering Brazilian percussionist Airto...

(Soundbite of "Miles Davis: The Cellar Door Sessions 1970")

Mr. WHITEHEAD: Jarrett is right when he says Davis hadn't totally
transformed his jazz group into a funk act yet. And there were still a few
free jazzy freakouts left over from earlier lineup. So the group pulls in
several directions. But it is a mess in a good way, like a Jackson Pollack.
Davis had been working the sextet with Gary Bartz on saxophone for a couple of
months before they recorded in Washington. A fraction of this music was
released in mangled form ages ago on the album "Live Evil." That stuff had
come from the last of four nights when guitarist John McLaughlin was plopped
into the band. A jazz picker with a raunchy tone, McLaughlin upped the ante
while being careful not to step on Jarrett's toes. His lines can sound oddly
like what Miles was reaching for on processed trumpet. Which goes to show, if
you really want to sound like a guitar, get a guitarist.

(Soundbite of "Miles Davis: The Cellar Door Sessions 1970")

Mr. WHITEHEAD: John McLaughlin adds such extra oomph to the last two discs
here, you probably don't need four sets of warmup material from before he
showed up. All told, the Miles Davis box, "The Cellar Door Sessions 1970,"
includes six sets out of the 10 recorded that week. Three or four might have
been enough from an artistic, if not marketing, viewpoint.

GROSS: Kevin Whitehead teaches English and American Studies at the University
of Kansas, and he is a jazz columnist for He reviewed "Miles
Davis: The Cellar Door Sessions 1970."


GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of "Miles Davis: The Cellar Door Sessions 1970")
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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