Emmy award-winning investigative journalist and author Sharyl Attkisson talks with Opportunist’s Managing Editor Leslie Stone about her new book, the Obama administration’s harassment of journalists and why she will continue giving voice to the untouchable stories that others won’t publish.
Getting at the truth is Sharyl Attkisson’s trademark. She has won numerous accolades for her investigative reporting, including five Emmy awards and numerous nominations, several Investigative Reporters and Editors (I.R.E.) Finalist awards, and the 2012 Edward R. Morrow Award for coverage of the Obama administration’s “Fast and Furious” gun walking scandal, among others. At CBS News, where she worked for more than 20 years in the Washington Bureau, she contributed to various broadcasts, including the “CBS Evening News” weekday and weekend editions and “The Early Show.”
Attkisson received both praise and criticism for her Emmy-nominated coverage of the Sept. 11, 2012, terrorist attacks in Benghazi, Libya. She alleges that her personal and work computers were hacked at the height of her work on the Benghazi story, as she continued to produce often unfavorable reports on the Obama administration. Her new book, Stonewalled: My Fight For the Truth Against the Forces of Obstruction, Intimidation and Harassment in Obama’s Washington, made the New York Times Best Seller list and has received rave reviews from fellow journalists.
In recent months, Attkisson filed a $35 million lawsuit against the federal government, alleging that the U.S. Dept. of Justice hacked into her computer in retaliation for her aggressive investigation into scandals surrounding “Fast and Furious,” Obamacare and the Benghazi attacks.
Opportunist: Sharyl, how did you initially become interested in investigative reporting?
Sharyl Attkisson: It wasn’t intentional. I was just always taught in journalism school that if you want to find an aspect of a story that is different from what everyone else is reporting, you need to peek behind the curtain for the piece that hasn’t been widely told. My favorite thing is uncovering a little bit more and going a little more in-depth. An item treated as a day-of-air story and then left behind has unanswered questions. So you stick with it and, by virtue of the follow-up and answering questions others haven’t, you continue finding things out.
Opportunist: What are some of your favorite assignments?
Sharyl Attkisson: Getting to see things I wouldn’t ordinarily see. I traveled with the U.S. military on a few assignments, which was quite the experience. I flew on a combat mission over Kosovo in a B-52—both the abbreviated training and the actual flight were very interesting—and I got to fly on an F-15 jet on a Combat Air Patrol mission. An antigravity flight, where they put you on a plane and you do these maneuvers that make you weightless for maybe 20 to 30 seconds at a time, was a great deal of fun. I also enjoyed traveling through Bosnia, Greece, Turkey and Italy when covering Hillary Clinton. Those things are highlights for sure.
Stories with content are another favorite. One of my first assignments that received awarded recognition was a story I did on the American Red Cross’ mishandling of 9/11 funds after the terrorist attacks. My coverage of Ford Explorer rollovers with Firestone tires was nominated for an Emmy. My producer and I did a piece almost every day until the tires were pulled. Another highlight has been covering a lot of waste, fraud and abuse by charities, corporations or government under both Democrats and Republicans.
Sharyl Attkisson: When I was departing CBS a couple of different book agents approached me and thought there might be a book to tell about my career. I thought the conflicts and challenges in the journalism industry would be an important topic because there’s a transition going on in our industry. We are all talking about it behind the scenes, but it’s not widely spoken of publicly.
Opportunist: What kind of transition? Is it harder for investigative journalists today to get at the truth?
Sharyl Attkisson: Yeah. The job is very tough. I think investigative journalists are steered toward certain stories, discouraged from others and not given an outlet. In other words, their editors won’t publish them. Whenever they’ve done the sort of reporting that the powers that be consider harmful, they’ve had pushback. They are steered, discouraged and what I call ‘controversialized.’ Investigative journalists everywhere are complaining about it. So, yes, that makes pursuit of the truth more difficult—especially if there aren’t strong editorial minds backing them in the job that they do. I had strong bosses at CBS for many years. The last couple of years they really didn’t have the stomach and didn’t back you up.
As a kind of side effect from this, other things are being done to control the methods of journalism. There is an attempt to control the whole message of what is to be said. Freedom of speech is allowed as long as it’s the right opinion. Increasingly, people are not allowed to express free speech if the powers that be deem it controversial. That is pretty shocking.
Opportunist: In Stonewalled, you describe the Obama administration as breaking new ground in its monitoring of journalists, intimidation and harassment of opposition groups and surveillance of private citizens. What are some of the specific ways these tactics have differed from those of other administrations?
Sharyl Attkisson: I would say probably all administrations have had their form of what is called pushback for stories they don’t like. I believe the Obama administration has put aggression and organization to it.
Opportunist: How so?
Sharyl Attkisson: It doesn’t just attack the most damaging stories but, on a daily basis, hammers away at news media covering any story deemed critical of the administration. This means daily contacts to the news organizations by White House staff as they call and complain about a story or even a headline they don’t like. In my view, they are trying to create an opportunity where news organizations self-censure because they don’t want the harassment and phone calls.
Opportunist: In your testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee in January, you said that in 2013 Reporters Without Borders downgraded the United States’ standing in terms of global free press rankings and had actually rated the Obama administration worse than the Bush White House. People who spoke out against former President George W. Bush and his policies had their careers ruined.
Sharyl Attkisson: The Obama administration is the best yet. It may be due to the Internet and their ability to use social media and bloggers to advance their agenda. Most importantly, they get other media outlets to bully and shout down and controversialize news reporters, news organizations, whistle blowers and politicians asking tough question they don’t like.
These tactics have been used for a long time. I watched a new movie called ‘Kill the Messenger,’ about a reporter uncovering misdeeds in the 1990s. If the movie is based on any truth at all, which it claims to be, reporters are set aside, identified, targeted and controversialized—a word I used before the movie. The whole idea is if a reporter becomes the story, people won’t listen to the content. So they try to find dirt and evidence on the reporter and use partners in the media to claim the reporter’s work is discredited. This includes contacting the news reporter’s bosses or corporate stakeholders and complaining. It’s not a new phenomenon, but I think under the Obama administration it has been very aggressive.
Opportunist: How have readers reacted to your book so far?
Sharyl Attkisson: I would say I’ve gotten almost exclusively great feedback from people who appreciate the insider story being told. I’ve also received great feedback from colleagues who aren’t in the position to talk publicly. The fact that it made the New York Times Best Seller list, which I certainly didn’t expect, shows broad interest in the subject matter.
Opportunist: When did you first suspect that you were being electronically surveilled?
Sharyl Attkisson: In January of 2013 when a source looked at my CBS computer and confirmed that I was being surveilled. I was doing a lot of Benghazi coverage and a couple of my confidential sources connected to government separately suggested I was likely being monitored by the government for my work. They asked if anything strange was going on technically. Yes, there was, but I certainly didn’t attribute it to any various cause. Through a friend and contact I got a well-placed source to look at my CBS computer. Actually, they offered to do it—it wasn’t my idea—and that’s how I first came to realize I had been under long-term, ongoing monitoring. The whole idea sounded very farfetched prior to knowing about Edward Snowden, government-seized Associated Press phone records or the Dept. of Justice looking at Fox News reporter James Rosen and his confidential sources. In a vacuum it sounded farfetched; in retrospect it makes a lot of sense.
Opportunist: You have said that three different forensic exams uncovered evidence that someone was monitoring you surreptitiously—via long-term remote surveillance, including keystroke monitoring, password capture, use of Skype to listen to audio, etc. Was this done to your work computer, your personal computer or both?
Sharyl Attkisson: Surveillance was confirmed on my CBS laptop computer. Of course, the moment I learned that I never used it again. Surveillance was also confirmed on my Apple desktop computer that is no longer in use. I replaced the [CBS] computer with another laptop. This third computer hasn’t had a forensic exam—I can’t continue getting exams on my computers for the rest of my life—but that is the one that, nine months after the confirmed intrusion, strangely had text being deleted at hyperspeed.
Opportunist: You have publicly shared a video that shows line after line of text being deleted from a document on your computer screen, as if some phantom had taken over the keyboard. What was the reaction to that?
Sharyl Attkisson: Propagandists have wildly misreported the keyboard incident, claiming a backspace key was stuck. But there is no backspace key on the computer and they haven’t even checked the computer. Also, it’s impossible—and they haven’t proven otherwise—to create the hyperspeed deletions of pages that were happening in just seconds. You can’t stick or hold down a backspace key and duplicate that. It’s not forensic evidence or part of our case, but it’s what I call a visual anecdote and proof of some of the anomalies I was seeing before we confirmed intrusion.
Opportunist: Remote intrusion can easily be done by just about anyone, anywhere—provided they have the knowledge, correct?
Sharyl Attkisson: It’s my understanding that it’s not that hard to get into somebody’s computer, but to do the things that were done to mine, and using software not widely available and such highly sophisticated tactics, made it clear to me—by forensic experts—that very few resources have this capability.
Opportunist: Why do you think your claims have been met with skepticism from some people?
Sharyl Attkisson: Those are people who have an agenda to try to, again, controversialize the story so the public at large doesn’t pay much attention to it. That’s silly for anybody in America today, based on what we now know as fact. People who don’t believe this is possible would be sticking their heads in the sand or have an agenda they are trying to advance.
Today a blogger, for example, can write something about a person with no evidence. It can be completely false, relying on so-called experts with no credentials or access and still get picked up by the news media. This is really a stunning comment on journalism and part of what I have written about in Stonewalled. There was wide misreporting on every aspect of my computer intrusion. The usual suspects were most recently trying to say it has been disproven. The inspector general never even looked at the primary computer involved. Second, regarding a second computer I asked them to look at, they said they couldn’t confirm remote intrusion.
In my view, in speaking with them, they didn’t have the technical expertise to do so. It’s also true they didn’t rule it out, and yet the media reported that they had. The media also failed to note the obvious in their lack of propensity to ask critical questions of those accused of wrongdoing. They only questioned the whistle blowers. The inspector general worked for the very agency who did this. Any half decent journalist would review any report they issue with at least a little skepticism. They were defending themselves.
Lastly, about skepticism—you really have to be living on another planet, especially after what happened to the Associated Press and Fox News’ James Rosen, to think it was farfetched that they did this. Also, the propagandists’ tendency to question those who are bringing wrongdoers to light—the reporters—while never turning the skepticism on the wrongdoers is a clear sign of trying to advance an agenda. The questions asked of me, which are entirely fair, were never asked of those who allegedly did those things.
Opportunist: Do you believe the whole truth about your situation will ever come out?
Sharyl Attkisson: I believe there are people who know it, but I can’t predict whether certain people will come forward. A lot of the truth will come out as evidence, but I don’t know if we will ever know 100 percent. I am seriously touched and I continue to be motivated by the contact I get from government insiders who, unlike the propagandists, don’t believe this is farfetched. They have already told me they’re on my side and would like to help. They are reaching out and I really appreciate that. It’s a huge motivator.
Opportunist: What’s next for you, Sharyl?
Sharyl Attkisson: That question kind of implies I’m in a transition but I’m not. I am contributing to a variety of news sites, TV and press. I continue to write and publish stories. This is what I wanted to do when I left CBS. Every day is a little bit different and new opportunities arrive. In fact, I can now give voice to the untouchable stories that others won’t publish due to their own agenda or interests.
Leslie Stone is an award-winning writer, editor and journalist with more than two decades of experience covering business, finance, real estate and lifestyle issues for newspapers, magazines and online publications. Originally from Virginia, she currently resides between Florida and Michigan. Follow Leslie on Twitter: @lescstone.
Follow Sharyl Attkisson on Twitter: @SharylAttkisson
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