Back in 2014, the FBI worked with an attorney-turned-informant to try to stop a meeting between journalist James Risen and a source. This week on Intercepted: Risen, national security correspondent for The Intercept, reveals how the FBI used his reporting to try to catch a person they secretly called “the second Snowden.” Recordings of conversations between an FBI agent and the attorney expose the government’s efforts to prevent Risen from obtaining documents that they feared could expose new details about U.S. government spying.
[Solemn, heavy music.]
Grayden Ridd: We also don’t want to create a situation where, OK, we do it, and we have to meet, but because we’ve kind of had to scramble around and do a Chinese fire drill, we don’t cover it appropriately, or we botch it up … We want to make it count after all the sweat and tears we put into it.
James Risen: FBI agent Grayden Ridd had a secret message for his informant. An FBI team had been given the green light by the Justice Department to ambush a planned meeting between a reporter and a source, and the informant’s job was to let the FBI know when and where the meeting would take place.
The reporter whose meeting they planned to ambush was me.
[Intercepted theme music.]
Jeremy Scahill: This is Intercepted.
JR: I’m James Risen, senior national security correspondent for The Intercept.
Back in January 2014, I was an investigative reporter in the Washington bureau of the New York Times focusing on national security. The FBI wanted to stop me from obtaining documents revealing the details of massive spying operations by the National Security Agency.
The FBI was convinced that I was in contact with someone they had secretly nicknamed the “second Snowden,” who was about to give me an archive of documents that went far beyond what former NSA contractor Edward Snowden had leaked about the agency’s spying operations the year before.
The FBI’s plan to grab my source at our scheduled meeting was approved by top officials at the FBI and the Justice Department during the Obama administration, according to digital recordings I obtained of several phone conversations between the FBI agent — Ridd — and his informant.
This is Ridd:
GR: I have been looking into the device issue. On the one hand, there’s support from on high to do that sort of thing. There are some practical issues that elevate risks of certain things in ways that may not be real obvious. And so I’m not sure how it’s going to shake out; among other things, it makes the chances of your having to testify significantly higher. And I am trying to avoid that, so —
JR: The informant, who I’m not naming and you won’t hear, is sitting in a bar covertly recording his conversation with Ridd in this moment.
GR: One of the sort of nuts and bolts, making sure all of the pieces are in place and everything can happen, and the other one, that’s sort of the political, going up the chain of command and saying — and right now they’re on board with between the resources and everything, but [indistinct phrase] I have to periodically go up to the throne room and recommit them, so — now, we actually have got a lot of buy-in.
JR: The Justice Department did not respond to requests for comment.
Eric Holder, who was attorney general at the time of the attempted ambush operation, did not respond to a request for comment left with his office. And then-FBI Director James Comey did not respond to a request for comment conveyed through his lawyer. The FBI declined to identify Grayden Ridd as an agent or connect me with him. I also recently visited Ridd’s home, knocked on his door, and no one answered.
[Slow, percussive music.]
JR: The FBI’s attempt to catch my source came as the Justice Department was waging a seven-year legal campaign against me in connection with a separate leak investigation.
Obama’s Justice Department had subpoenaed me and was demanding that I testify in court and reveal the confidential sources I had relied on for a chapter about a botched CIA operation in my 2006 book “State of War.” I included the story in my book after The Times killed an article on the same topic, under pressure from the White House and the CIA.
The planned ambush came during a critical period in my legal battle with the Justice Department. In January 2014 — just as the FBI was planning the ambush operation — the U.S. Supreme Court was asked to hear arguments over my subpoena in the leak case involving the mismanaged CIA operation. At the time, I was facing the possibility of going to prison for refusing to reveal my sources if the Supreme Court did not rule in my favor.
But the Justice Department did not disclose to the Supreme Court that the FBI was simultaneously targeting my reporting on this completely separate story. The Justice Department and the FBI have also never acknowledged to me that they planned to ambush my meeting with a source.
GR: And that’s the problem with getting in the car under any circumstances is that our ability to back you up at that point is reduced to just about nothing. And, uh, it’s a bad call. But I appreciate your willingness to put your head in the lion’s mouth on that. [Laughs.]
JR: The FBI’s attempt to catch this source underscores the obsession over leaks to the press that has gripped the U.S. national security community in recent years, under both Republican and Democratic administrations. The FBI, CIA, and other agencies are now willing to take actions that would have been considered far outside the bounds of acceptable policy just a few years ago to prevent stories in the press that will embarrass powerful officials and reveal government wrongdoing.
The Trump administration went to even greater extremes than its predecessor to target the press.
In 2017, then-CIA director Mike Pompeo reportedly considered kidnapping WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who, at the time, was living in the Ecuadorian embassy in London and bringing him back to the United States. Yahoo News reported that Trump administration officials even raised the possibility of assassinating Assange.
Kieran Gilbert (Sky News Australia): Former United States officials claimed the U.S. made plans to abduct and kill Julian Assange. A Yahoo News investigation found the CIA created a plan in 2017 to kidnap the WikiLeaks founder and Australian citizen, while he was holed up in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London.
Vladimir Duthiers (CBS News): Yahoo News spoke with 30 former U.S. Intelligence and National Security officials for the story, and the former Secretary of State and former CIA director Mike Pompeo is calling for all of those sources to face criminal charges.
JR: Pompeo was reportedly obsessed with targeting Assange after a massive leak of CIA hacking tools, known as Vault 7. WikiLeaks published Vault 7 documents in 2017, revealing that the CIA had the ability to hack the computer systems built into a wide range of consumer products, including cars, televisions, and home appliances.
Juan González (Democracy Now!): WikiLeaks recently began releasing a massive trove of secret CIA documents, exposing how the agency has developed tools to hack into and spy on principal phones, computers, and televisions all over the world.
Dhananjay Khadilkar (France 24): By the sheer number of these 8,761 documents, they are set to represent one of the biggest leaks of confidential documents that describe different techniques used by the CIA to break into different electronic devices like phones, and surprisingly smart television sets as well.
JR: In April 2017, Pompeo labeled WikiLeaks a “hostile intelligence service.”
I have previously been reluctant to write what I know about the FBI’s scheme because the story is so complicated and confused that I am still not sure I fully understand it. But Michael Schmidt, my former colleague at The Times, made some elements of the story public when he wrote about the episode in his 2020 book, “Donald Trump V. The United States: Inside the Struggle to Stop a President.” The CIA’s reported discussion of kidnapping or even killing Assange finally convinced me that I should make public what I know about how the FBI also tried to target my reporting. In his book, Schmidt did not name the FBI agent — I am doing so for the first time.
[Upbeat electronic music.]
JR: In late 2013, I met a source who was disgusted by the massive scale of the NSA’s surveillance operations and wanted to expose the full scope of the agency’s global power, which the source claimed went far beyond what Snowden had revealed. He was considering providing me with the NSA documents to prove it. But first, I needed to show him that he could trust me.
Our initial meeting went well. We got along, and we agreed to get together again. The source had scheduled an upcoming trip to Brussels, so we agreed to meet in Belgium. I hoped he might be ready to hand over the documents.
I chose Bruges, Belgium, a historic town where we would easily blend in among the crowds of foreign tourists. To be honest, I also chose Bruges because I wanted to visit the city; one of my favorite movies was “In Bruges,” the dark comedy starring Colin Farrell and Brenden Gleeson.
Colin Farrell [as Ray in “In Bruges”]: After I killed them, I walked home to await instructions. Get to Bruges. [Echoes of other people saying “Bruges.”]
Elizabeth Berrington [as Natalie in “In Bruges”]: Bruges, where’s that?
Ralph Fiennes [as Harry Walters” in “In Bruges”]: It’s in Belgium.
CF: For two weeks, in fucking Bruges, in a room like this — with you? No way.
JR: The film’s plot, about two hitmen waiting for something to happen in the Belgian city, made Bruges seem like an appropriate backdrop for a secret meeting with the source.
After a quick internet search of bars and restaurants, I chose the Café Rose Red in the city’s center as the place for our meeting. It was likely to be packed with tourists.
The source and I would be joined at the meeting by an American lawyer who had originally introduced us. I had known the lawyer for several years. When I first met him, he was in private practice and occasionally handled legal matters for individuals connected to the government’s national security apparatus. Later, he split his time between the United States and Europe. He told me that he was sometimes involved in international arms deals.
The lawyer seemed to be an adrenaline junkie, someone who had found a home on the dark side of the world of international intelligence. I considered him primarily a go-between, someone who occasionally introduced me to people involved in national security matters both in the United States and overseas, as well as people involved in more questionable activities, such as arms deals and money laundering. I found his contacts helpful to my reporting; through him, I gained access and insights into the intelligence underworld.
But by the time of the planned meeting in Bruges in 2014, I did not know that the American lawyer was not only my go-between: He had also begun to inform on me, and my new source, for the FBI.
GR: So tell me if these are the two alternates I got. I know you don’t do business in Belgium, but Belgium would be one and Rotterdam — not Amsterdam, but Rotterdam— would be the other.
JR: I am not publicly identifying the American lawyer, so that’s why you’re only hearing recordings of Ridd. I have tried throughout my career to protect my sources, and while the FBI may know who he is, I’m not going to name him, even though he betrayed me.
[Slow, ponderous music.]
JR: As I prepared to travel to Bruges, I tried to take a few precautions to avoid detection. I planned to fly from Washington to Paris, and then pay cash for a train ticket to Bruges. I was hoping that would reduce the digital evidence of my travel. I didn’t know that my efforts were pointless, because the FBI was already closely tracking my movements, based on the information the American lawyer fed them.
GR: As you’re talking to Jim about this and other stuff you’re talking about, about the source, anything you can do to sort of — again as you elicit bits and pieces. If you talk about: Hey, well, if he’s coming back for the holidays — and you firmly believe that he’s not — well that narrows down the group of people that we’re dealing with.
JR: Just before I was scheduled to leave Washington, I received an anonymous email from an odd address that I had never seen before. The email contained a brief, but stunning message. It said: “Don’t go to Bruges.”
Uncertain who was behind the message, I canceled my travel plans and stayed in the United States.
GR: Those sort of tidbits, if you could lock those down, that, again, narrows down our pool of people. And believe it or not, while we didn’t get across the end zone of what we were hoping to do this last time, we actually made a lot of progress in terms of the sort of information that just sort of filters through that process
JR: Much later, I asked the American lawyer if he knew what had happened and whether he had sent the email. He admitted that he was responsible for the warning.
Eventually, he confessed to me that the FBI had been waiting in Bruges to trap my source. He said that the FBI knew about our meeting because he had told them about it and that the source wanted to provide me with NSA documents. He admitted that he had been informing on me.
GR: And one final thing then, before I let you go: I had to brief our recent adventure to the assistant director and all of his cadre on Tuesday. Thereafter, it was briefed to the chief executive of our [inaudible]. And they asked me to convey to you their thanks and gratitude for the work that you’ve been doing and for sticking with this.
JR: The lawyer told me that, based on the information he had provided, the FBI had sent a large team to Bruges to try to arrest my source. The FBI had told the American lawyer that senior Justice Department officials wanted to grab the source when I was not there, so they asked the lawyer to find a way to prevent — or at least delay — my arrival in Bruges.
Before I got the anonymous email warning me not to come, the lawyer and his FBI handler brainstormed how to stop me from getting to Bruges. In one taped phone conversation, the lawyer told the FBI he would have his assistant pick me up at the train and then pretend to have car trouble so that I couldn’t get to the café in time.
The American lawyer told Ridd: “I will put my colleague on him for logistical support, and will tell him she’ll be your driver … She would have strict instructions to queer the whole deal, up to and including having the car break down.”
But that wasn’t good enough for the FBI, who wanted the American lawyer to stop me from traveling to Europe.
Here’s Ridd again:
GR: I mean, that is a good tool at a tactical level, but that doesn’t save us from the wrath of the attorney general and headquarters. If he shows up in-country, all hell is going to break loose … the higher powers are going to have a conniption if he is in-country or otherwise sort of floating around Europe. So if at all possible, if you can get angry, scared, paranoid, frustrated: “Hey, the other guy on the end of this thing doesn’t want you on the continent. I don’t want you on the continent. This is – you’re gonna have every intelligence service in the world following you around Europe.”
JR: Ultimately, the FBI’s plans for the ambush came to nothing. The source I was hoping to meet did not go to Bruges either, so the arrest never took place. The FBI team in Bruges waited and waited, frustrated and in vain.
The American lawyer later told me that he had also warned the source not to come to Bruges. I am still not sure about his motivations. I don’t know whether he told me not to travel to Bruges because the FBI asked him to stop me, or because he wanted to prevent the FBI’s operation from succeeding. The American lawyer had introduced me to the source and set up our first meeting. Why would he go out of his way to do that, only to turn around and set a trap with the FBI?
I never again heard from the source I was trying to meet, and I never obtained a cache of NSA documents from him. In fact, I am still not sure whether he really had the documents or ever planned to give them to me.
When the lawyer confessed that he had been informing on me to the FBI, he apparently didn’t tell me the whole story. In his book, Schmidt reported that the lawyer also told the FBI that he had broken into one of my computers. He gave the FBI a flash drive that he claimed included data from a computer that I owned.
Schmidt wrote that the FBI never opened the flash drive, and that it sat untouched in a safe at the FBI’s Washington Field Office. When officials sought approval from Holder to check the drive’s contents, he denied the request and was furious that it had been put in writing, Schmidt wrote.
Schmidt also reported that the FBI cut its ties to the American lawyer, that two FBI agents involved in targeting my source and me were disciplined, and that one of those agents left the Bureau. I do not know whether Ridd was one of the agents disciplined or what has happened to him since. The Justice Department briefly considered whether the American lawyer had violated the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act for gaining access to my computer, according to Schmidt, but the Bureau did not tell me about that possibility.
[Low, contemplative music.]
JR: I may never know the truth, but I doubt that the flash drive the American lawyer gave the FBI actually contained any of my data. Schmidt writes that the lawyer told the FBI he could “install spyware” on my computer, and that he had secretly copied a trove of documents from my computer when I invited him to my house in 2014. But I don’t think he ever had the access or the skill to successfully hack my devices.
My skepticism is based on my own experience with him. Soon after the FBI’s attempt to arrest my source, the lawyer also gave me a flash drive, one that he claimed included NSA documents from the source. The flash drive could not be opened; the password he gave me didn’t work. I became suspicious of the drive and whether it contained malware, so I turned it over to The New York Times security team for analysis. The security team couldn’t find anything; they also talked to the American lawyer and questioned him about the drive.
I strongly suspect that the lawyer purposely gave me a non-functional flash drive and that he probably played some kind of game with the drive he gave to the FBI as well. In his recorded calls with Ridd, the lawyer discussed putting a flash drive containing secret documents in a microwave to destroy it before giving it to me. I have concluded that the American lawyer loved to play games with everyone, on all sides.
The lawyer told Ridd that he frequently lied to me and my colleagues at The Times. And in the runup to the ill-fated operation in Bruges, the dishonesty had intensified.
But the digital recordings suggest that the lawyer often misled the FBI at the same time that he was informing on and lying to me. In one conversation, the American lawyer told Ridd that I was planning to arrange with European intelligence services to show them any NSA documents I obtained from the new source. That was not true; it was one of several false or misleading statements the American lawyer made to his FBI handler. I wonder if the lawyer told the FBI that he had introduced me to the source, that he had set up our initial meeting, or that he told the source not to come to Bruges.
After he confessed that he had betrayed me, the American lawyer told me that the FBI had also become very suspicious of him, and that he was resisting their efforts to get him to take a polygraph. The recordings of his conversations with Ridd detail his arguments with the FBI over the issue.
GR: And one particular pain in my ass, up the chain of command, who is interested, sometime before this meeting takes place, he wants to [indistinct word] the polygraph to be taken to kind of complete the cycle.
JR: The lawyer acted offended that the FBI would question his truthfulness and credibility. He said: “If people are not comfortable with the veracity of my reporting, Grayden, it hits me very much the wrong way. I’m sorry guys at [FBI headquarters] don’t get it … but somebody should let them know that … I’ve been around the block and I’m a nice guy, and I have busted my ass for the benefit of the government on this … either the reporting is good and the facts are good or they’re not — and if they’re not, we should all walk away.”
It was a masterful performance.
Jose Olivares: That was Jim Risen, National Security Correspondent with The Intercept. After recording this episode, the FBI returned Jim’s call refusing to comment for the story. Jim also reached out to one of Ridd’s relatives who said they would ask the FBI agents to contact Jim. Ridd did not do so.
[End credits music.]
JO: And that’s it for this episode of Intercepted. Follow us on Twitter @Intercepted and on Instagram @InterceptedPodcast.
Intercepted is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. José Olivares is lead producer. Supervising producer is Laura Flynn. Betsy Reed is editor in chief of The Intercept. And Sharif Youssef mixed our show. Vanessa Gezari, National Security Editor at The Intercept, edited this story. And a special thanks to Margot Williams, for help with research for this piece. Our theme music, as always, was composed by DJ Spooky.
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Thanks so much.
Until next time.