It may not be what you think.
James Risen, a Pulitzer Prize-winner at the New York Times, may face jail time on a federal contempt of court charge if he doesn’t release the identity of one of his confidential sources.
The Bush Administration’s Justice Department tried to pry the information out of him, but ultimately relented.
Now President Obama, who vowed to restore our civil liberties when he ran for the White House in 2008, is letting his Justice Department pursue Risen even more aggressively than Bush did.
The information concerns a source for a chapter in Risen’s terrific 2006 book, “State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration.” That chapter dealt with a scheme to give the Iranians faulty blueprints for a nuclear weapon.
The U.S. government alleges that the source was Jeffrey Sterling, a former CIA employee, whom the Justice Department is prosecuting under the Espionage Act.
Risen all along has invoked his privilege as a journalist under the First Amendment not to reveal his source. A lower court agreed with him, but an appellate court sided with Obama’s Justice Department. In a sharp dissenting opinion, Judge Roger Gregory, who was appointed both by President Clinton and by President George W. Bush, sided with Risen. Judge Gregory said the appellate court’s decision was “contrary to the will and wisdom of our Founders.”
In January Risen, appealed that decision to the Supreme Court. In his petition for a writ of certiorari, Risen wrote:
“If I am forced to testify, it will immediately and substantially harm my ability to gather newsworthy information” and “to secure the trust of sources in the future.”
He elaborated on how dangerous to all journalists this precedent would be: “Compelling journalists to testify about their conversations with confidential sources will inevitably hinder future attempts to obtain cooperation from those or other confidential sources. It creates the inevitable appearance that journalists either are or can be readily converted into an investigative arm of the government. This would seriously compromise journalists’ integrity and independence.”
He said the Obama Administration’s effort to go after him is part of its policy of “aggressively investigating whistleblowers and reporters in a way that will have a chilling effect on the freedom of the press in the United States.”
Obama’s Justice Department, in its brief to the Supreme Court, asserted that “no reporter’s privilege exists,” and that this case would be “an unsuitable vehicle for considering the existence of a qualified reporter’s privilege.”
If the Justice Department prevails and the Supreme Court decides not to take Risen’s appeal, he could be jailed for contempt of court.
Risen has vowed to go to jail rather than reveal his source.
The Freedom of the Press Foundation has called the government's effort to force Risen to reveal a source “one of the most significant press freedom cases in decades.”
The Progressive magazine, now merged with the Center for Media and Democracy, has joined with the Freedom of the Press Foundation, Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR), The Nation magazine, Roots Action, and others to insist on protection for the confidentiality of journalists’ sources.
A petition drive is under way to tell President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder to back off.
Sign the petition "We Support James Risen Because We Support a Free Press."
Matthew Rothschild is senior editor of The Progressive magazine and author of “You Have No Rights: Stories of America in an Age of Repression.”