Jeffrey Richelson

Jeffrey Richelson was interviewed as part of the Booknotes Oral History Project on February 12, 2015. Mr. Richelson appeared on C-SPAN's Booknotes program on September 16, 2001, discussing his book The Wizards of Langley.

Interview Transcript

Hello, I'm Lindsey Bestebreurtjei, oral historian for George Mason University Libraries, and with me is sound engineer Robert Vay. Today is February 12, 2015, and we are recording from Fenwick Library, where we are speaking with author Jeffrey Richardson, who appeared onBooknotes on September 16, 2001, to discuss his book, The Wizards of Langley, Inside the CIA's Directorate of Science and Technology. Hello Dr. Richardson, thank you for speaking with us today.

Hello, you're welcome.

So you appeared on the program less than a week after the attacks of September 11, 2001, to discuss America's intelligence community.  These are obviously very special circumstances.  Were you already slated to appear on Booknotes, or was this a last minute addition?

As far as I can remember, and I'm pretty sure I'm right, it was a last minute addition, I think, which is also indicated by the fact that it was a joint appearance as opposed to just one person, but I think a lot of calls right after 9/11 for, I guess, fairly obvious reasons, and this was one of them.

So you mentioned that yours was a joint interview, and you appeared on the program with James Bamford, author of Body of Secrets.  Did this affect how you prepared for your appearance on Booknotes, knowing that you would appear with another author?

No, because we weren't supposed to divide anything up in terms of what we were. It wasn't a joint presentation after all, so I just read my book and went over my book and thought about things that I might be asked, and I figured Jim would do the same, but there wasn't any reason to change how I would prepare. It was more of a lengthy interview than simply an ordinary TV appearance.

And what do you remember most from your appearance on the show?

Actually the question about the acoustic kitty is one thing that I remember most without it, clearly before watching it again, simply because that was a question I had been asked repeatedly, and so I sort of expected to be asked that.

Well, you touched on the length of the program, and Booknotes, hour-long format, did differ greatly from most other network television interviews. What do you think are the benefits or potential drawbacks for this longer format interview for the author and for the audience?

Well, I don't really know that there are any drawbacks at all from the author's point of view, because you really get to, at least as long as you know, the material in your book, the cost you get to talk in more detail with regard to in response to questions, and you get asked a broader range of questions. So it's, it's, it's, it's much more reflective of what you actually wrote in the book than it would be if you just had a, a human interview, and it probably also, and it certainly it also means that the people, the person who questions you in that type of format is going to be more prepared than simply a anchor of a local news show, for example, who has three minutes to squeeze you in between all sorts of different stories.

Well, you mentioned how your appearance was unique because it was the double author format, but your appearance also stands out because it was live, and because it was followed by a one-hour call-in segment. What was your experience with this call-in portion of the show?

To be honest, until I watched the interview again a few days ago and saw that it said there was a call-in segment of it, I didn't even remember it. You know, one thing is that at that time I did a lot of radio interviews and number of them had call-ins, and, and I don't remember anything in terms of, of either a great question or one of the bizarre questions that you may often get when people call in. So, you know, I've done that before, and it wasn't, you know, unique in, in that one thing, but I don't really remember anybody, anybody's questions, to be honest, since it was, you know, 13 years ago.

Well, Brian Lamb read the books very thoroughly before the interview. You mentioned the acoustic kitty question that he brought up during your interview, and that definitely was a very interesting aspect of your book and the CIA program. But do you find this kind of preparation to be normal for interviewers, and how did it change the interview experience?

Well, I don't think it's, it's probably not normal. I mean, I've done also subsequent to then, that time, some events at, say, the LA Public Library where the focus was on my book, and I think one of them was actually shown on C-SPAN at some point. So in that case, the author had read the whole book, and we talked for an hour or, or more. So, but that's not normal because most of the interviews are much shorter interviews and the, the anchor has a lot of other things, or whatever question you have a lot of other things to prepare for. So, and that certainly helps because that's, you're more likely to get intelligent questions or questions about things that you might want to really talk about that might get short-changed or overlooked when you have a short interview with somebody who's just sort of been briefed on what might be considered the highlights of the book.

Well, Mr. Lamb frequently asks his guests biographical questions. Did that surprise you, and is this different from other interviews you have experienced?

It certainly is different, again, because part of the time element, and I guess it did surprise me although I don't remember for sure, my feeling at the time, but that certainly is something that I think is, tends to be unusual. An interview might ask why you wrote the book, but not so much, you know, what you, what your background was.

And on biographical questions, were you surprised by any of Brian Lamb's other questions?

Not really, no. I think there was a lot in my book, and a lot in the situation that, that I thought, you know, might be raised and, and it was. There was nothing that would sort of be sort of strange type of questions or something that I wouldn't have thought of in advance. He might ask, so I, you know, again, this is partially based on, on watching it again a few days ago, and I can't say I came across anything where he said to, why did he ask that? Or that's kind of a strange question. I think his question is whether a type of question you'd want somebody to ask both about your book and under the circumstances.

Did you watch Booknotes before, after your own interview, and did your experience on the show change your opinion of the program?

Well, I'm sure, yes, I did watch mine, and I, I have watched it selectively, you know, over the years, depending on who it was on and, and whether I was particularly interested in, in the subject. And so, I guess it didn't change my, my view of it. So, I guess, you know, again, what I expected in terms of, of a serious interview, of, you know, of an author about, about what he's, what he's written.

Would you have preferred, if given the opportunity, to have had a more traditional Booknotes interview with only one author and without being in the shadow of such a major national event?

Well, I would prefer the national event not to have occurred, but beyond that, you know, I didn't have any feeling that it would be better if, gee, I only wish I could have done this by myself, because I think it was probably a better show because they had both of us on and both of us could talk about different aspects of, of intelligence. And Jim certainly was a, is a well-thought of author with a great NSA, and the fact that it did occur in the shadow of, of such an event just, I guess, made it more relevant. So I didn't have any reservations or think, you know, I, I would have preferred to have it done some other way.

Well, as you may or may not know, George Mason University has been gifted all of Brian Lamb's personal copies of the books used in the Booknotes series. This amounts to some 800 nonfiction books published between the late 1980s and 2004. What do you think the benefits and uses of such a collection might be?

Well, I guess it depends on what other people are going to use it for. I think if somebody's writing a history of C-SPAN and they're devoting some significant time, which I think they would to the Booknotes program, obviously having all that available in one place would be an enormous help. If you had to go track down, make, have somebody else make a list and try to track down the books, that would be pretty time consuming. This would make it obviously a lot easier. So if there is some historian who's going to be writing either about C-SPAN history as a whole or Booknotes history as a whole, well, it's all there there for them then.

Brian Lamb had a rule that authors could only appear on the program one time. If asked back, would you have returned for another interview?

Oh, certainly. Certainly. That's, you know, I'd say it's, you know, in a one way the whole thing is parallel to doing book reviews where if you, when you have a book review where you're limited to, you know, a thousand words to write about a book, it's not all that interesting to do the review because you're just so limited into what you can say. Whereas if you have a sort of, you know, you can write 25 pages, then you can actually do something that's interesting. I think it's similar with a program like that where if you can talk at length and it's not just depending on a few questions. What's more interesting to do is an interview so, and it was certainly, you know, a good experience so I certainly would have been willing to come back for another time.

Was there a difference in sales or national attention for your book after you discussed it with Brian Lamb on Booknotes?  

Well, it would be hard to separate it. I'm sure there was. It's hard to separate the impact that specific program had on sales from the fact that 9/11 had occurred because, I mean, the publishing company had already hired a firm to go out and arrange interviews for me, particularly on radio. And so the desire for those interviews certainly went up after 9/11. I would expect that people saw Booknotes and that also fit into the process, but it would be, and it certainly helped sales, but would be, I think, probably impossible for me to disentangle one impact from the other. I mean, I think it certainly had an impact, but, you know, we've had a laboratory experiment in which, you know, there was no 9/11 or there were no other efforts to arrange interviews. It's hard to say exactly what the impact was, other than there was some.

Did your experience with Brian Lamb and Booknotes cause you to rethink any of your own approaches or assumptions regarding your research or writing methods?

Not really. I think by that point I had written a number of books and sort of had settled into a, you know, sort of approach where I liked writing chronological narratives as opposed to other types of books and that I used, you know, a combination of interviews and freedom of information or act requests and archival research and other things that people had written to come up with the book, so there wasn't anything, I think, in the interview that caused me to change that.

What have you been working on since this book, and which works are you most pleased with?

Well, I've written a fair number of articles, scholarly articles on various aspects of intelligence, particularly the technical side of things. I've written a book called Spying on the Bomb on how the US Spied on Foreign Nuclear Weapons Programs and Defusing on and Get and on the Nuclear Emergency Search Team, which goes out and looks for possible nuclear devices of some of the claims they've hidden in the US city. I think probably the Spying on the Bomb was the biggest challenge because of the scope of the book and just the length and the number of different nuclear weapons programs. I covered, but also Wizards was in some ways my favorite book because it dealt with a topic I was particularly interested in, got to interview a lot of people who I was very interested to meet. Most of the books have their own sort of specific things about them that are particularly interesting or particularly satisfying and doing. It's hard to say it's just one they all have, they all have different aspects of them that are sort of satisfying.

In your estimation, what has been the lasting impact of Booknotes in then contemporary American society and perhaps since?

Oh, God, I would have no idea. I'm sorry, I just, you know, that's for somebody else to figure out. I mean, if that's the person who writes the history of  Booknotes come up with and, you know, determine, you know, what impact it had on sales, what impact it had on news coverage and authors' careers and things like that. I really wouldn't have any idea.

Well, is there anything else you would like to add regarding the Booknotes program, C-SPAN or Brian Lamb?

Other than just it's really good that he undertook that and it was a really interesting experience and I expect that probably held true for pretty much everybody else who was on the program. So, you know, it's, you know, it's a good part of, I guess, intellectual history that it went on and went on for so long.

Great. Well, thank you for taking the time to speak with us today.

Sure, no problem.