FBI agent Grayden Ridd had a confidential message for his informant. An FBI team had been given the green light by the Justice Department to ambush and derail 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 target was me.
It was January 2014, and 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 that I’d been told would reveal 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 that they feared could go 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 audio recordings I obtained of several phone conversations between Ridd and his informant. At the time, Eric Holder was U.S. attorney general and James Comey was FBI director.
“Right now, they are on board,” Ridd said in one phone conversation to plan the ambush operation, referring to top Justice Department and FBI officials. “I have to periodically go up to the throne room and recommit them. … We actually have a lot of buy-in and a lot of support, but I do need to feed the beast.”
The FBI declined to comment and the Justice Department did not respond to requests for comment. Holder did not answer a request for comment left with his office; Comey did not respond to a request for comment conveyed through his lawyer. Ridd did not respond to a request for comment placed with a relative or to a knock at the door of his home in Washington, D.C.
The FBI’s attempt to identify and catch my source came as the Justice Department was waging a seven-year legal campaign against me in connection with a separate leak investigation. The Obama 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 attempt to derail my reporting on the purported NSA leaks came during a critical period in my legal battle with the Justice Department. In January 2014 — just as the FBI was planning its ambush operation — the U.S. Supreme Court was asked to hear arguments over my subpoena in the leak case involving the mismanaged CIA program. 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 a completely separate story. The Justice Department and the FBI have also never acknowledged to me that they planned to conduct a raid at the scheduled meeting with my source.
The FBI’s attempt to catch my 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. Yahoo News reported last September that former President Donald Trump even raised the possibility of assassinating Assange. 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. 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 to ambush my source 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 share what I know about how the FBI also tried to target my reporting.
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 said he was considering providing me with the NSA documents to prove it. Our first meeting was designed to help him decide whether he could trust me enough to give me the documents.
That 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, a historic Belgian city 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 Brendan Gleeson. 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 involved in 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 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, the American lawyer had begun to inform on me and my new source for the FBI, I later learned. I don’t know exactly when he began to do so. (I’ve tried throughout my career to protect my sources. While the FBI knows who the lawyer is, I will not name him, even though he betrayed me.)
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, then pay cash for a train ticket to Bruges. I hoped 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 information the American lawyer had fed them.
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 not to go to Bruges.
Uncertain who was behind the message, I canceled my travel plans.
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 the meeting because he had told them about it, and that he had also told the FBI that the source wanted to provide me with NSA documents. He admitted that he had been informing on me.
He said 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 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 try 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 keep me from getting to Bruges. In one phone conversation, he told Ridd that 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.
“I will put, without sort of pulling back the curtain, I will put my colleague, who he has a great deal of confidence in, on him for logistical support, and tell him ‘Hey, she’ll meet up with you, she’ll help make your arrangements and be your driver,’ and essentially put her on him to keep tabs on him,” the American lawyer told Ridd. “She would have strict instructions to essentially queer that whole deal, up to and including having the car break down.”
But that wasn’t good enough for Ridd, who wanted the American lawyer to stop me from traveling to Europe.
“That is a good tool at a tactical level,” Ridd responded when the American lawyer suggested having his assistant stage a car breakdown. “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 and so, if at all possible, our primary goal needs to be to dissuade, to talk him out of it. … We need for him to not be in Europe for that weekend, and … when I say ‘we,’ I really mean you, because, brother, you’re turning out to be the one who’s got to do it. … The higher powers are going to have a conniption if he is in country or floating around Europe.”
Ultimately, the FBI’s plans came to nothing. The source I was hoping to meet did not go to Bruges either, so the arrest didn’t take place. The FBI team in Bruges waited and waited, according to the lawyer, frustrated and in vain. “The plan turned into a debacle,” Schmidt wrote in his book. “The source never arrived at the café, and the informant ended up getting drunk while waiting for him. When higher-ups at the bureau learned what had happened, they grew furious that an entire team had been sent to Belgium based on information from a man with little track record as a source who was also known to be double-crossing a reporter on the same matter.”
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 come 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 in the first place and had set up our introductory 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 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 did not 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, the then-attorney general 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.
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 purposefully gave me a nonfunctional 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 thumb 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. “During the course of my career with Jim … there have been a number of instances where I’ve lent Jim assistance or I’ve pointed him in a particular direction, and I’m talking in years past, where it was mundane news reporting,” the lawyer said. “The moments that were important, I betrayed Jim.”
In the run-up to the ill-fated operation in Bruges, he continued, the dishonesty had intensified. “I, just bluntly Grayden, I lie my ass off every day, OK, when I have to deal with these guys. Everything about my relationship with Jim has become a lie, and it takes just one stick to fall down and then I’m afraid that the whole house collapses on top of me, and it is incredible pressure for me.”
But the 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. “If he gets his hands on documents … then presumably those documents are … going to be stuck under the nose of people in Brussels and that’s going to be a really bad thing,” the lawyer said.
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. The lawyer acted offended that the FBI would question his truthfulness and credibility.
“If people are not comfortable with the veracity of my reporting, Grayden, it hits me very much the wrong way,” the American lawyer told Ridd. “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.
This content originally appeared on The Intercept and was authored by James Risen.