By Lena Williams, NewsGuild-CWA :: James Risen, a New York Times reporter who has been threatened with imprisonment for refusing to identify a confidential source, said Monday that he “will continue to fight” against testifying in the criminal trial of a former CIA officer suspected of leaking classified information to him.
Risen’s comments followed the Supreme Court’s rejection of his appeal, asking the Court to intervene to stop the government from compelling him to reveal whether Jeffrey Sterling was one of the sources for his 2006 book, “State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration.”
The Court’s decision puts Risen, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and member of The Newspaper Guild-CWA, in the precarious position of being forced to choose between a fundamental principle of journalism to protect a source or testifying in the federal trial to avoid what could be a lengthy jail sentence. Should it come to that, Risen has said he will go to jail.
Risen is the latest among several journalists around the country who have been subpoenaed to testify in criminal and federal trials or face jail.
Attorney General Eric Holder indicated to reporters last week that “no reporter who is doing his job is going to jail” as long as he is attorney general. But the Obama Administration has prosecuted more leak cases than any other presidency – seven, compared with four for all other administrations since 1945, according to the investigative service ProPublica.
“We strongly believe that the First Amendment protects Mr. Risen, as we believe the Framers envisioned,” Newspaper Guild President Bernie Lunzer said. “They saw the press as a fundamental piece of a functional republic. It is long past time for the Obama Administration to live up to those principles and stop persecuting journalists as Attorney General Holder suggested they would last week. If he meant what he said, now is the moment to prove it.”
Risen appealed to the high court after a federal appeals court in Richmond, Va., ordered him to comply with the subpoena in July 2013. In its ruling, the Fourth Circuit Court wrote: “So long as the subpoena is issued in good faith and is based on a legitimate need for law enforcement, the government need not make any special showing to obtain evidence of criminal conduct from a reporter in a criminal proceeding.”
On the Supreme Court website, the Risen rejection was one of more than 50 cases listed under the heading: “Certiorari Denied.”
In summarily refusing to give Risen his day in court, the Supreme Court sided with the government on whether the First Amendment freedom of the press extends to the rights of journalist to refuse to identify confidential sources in cases of national security.
In 2005, the Court declined to take up an appeal of a decision that ruled the reporter’s privilege did not protect Judith Miller, a former New York Times reporter, from testifying before a federal grand jury investigating a leak naming Valerie Plame as a CIA officer. Miller spent 85 days in jail before receiving a waiver from I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney’s Chief of Staff, as her “unnamed” source.
Dean Baquet, the executive editor of The Times, called the Supreme Court’s decision not to hear Risen’s case “disappointing.”
“Jim Risen is a groundbreaking national security reporter who continues to do powerful work,” Baquet said in a statement on The Times website. “Journalists like Jim depend on confidential sources to get information the public needs to know. The court’s failure to protect journalists’ right to protect their sources is deeply troubling.”
Indeed it is.
Having exhausted his legal appeals, the Justice Department is now Risen’s court of last resort.
The hope is that the DOJ will listen to the judicial reasoning of Judge Roger Gregory who disagreed with the Fourth Circuit on Risen’s case, writing: “The majority exalts the interests of the government, while unduly trampling those of the press, and in doing so, severely impinges on the press and the free flow of information in our society.”
Lena Williams, a retired New York Times reporter and Vice Chair of The Newspaper Guild, will be covering press freedom issues for The Guild.