Reporters Without Borders

Journalist in legal fight with Obama administration over sources

Journalist in legal fight with Obama administration over sources

Published on Thursday 20 October 2011. Updated on Friday 21 October 2011.
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Reporters Without Borders urges the Department of Justice to withdraw the appeal it filed yesterday in a bid to force New York Times reporter James Risen to testify about his confidential sources in the trial of Jeffrey Sterling, a former Central Intelligence Agency officer who is accused of leaking top-secret information.

“We remind the Obama administration that its role is not to determine what is good coverage of national security issues,” Reporters Without Borders said. “Jeffrey Sterling’s trial has now been suspended indefinitely. Forcing Risen to testify is an attempt to muzzle every journalist who might publish leaked information. It is an attempt to decide what should and should not be in the press.”

In a statement given to Reporters Without Borders yesterday, Risen said: “I will continue to fight the government’s effort because I believe that this case is a fundamental battle over freedom of the press in the United States. If I don’t fight, the government will go after other journalists.”

Since President Obama took office, his administration has initiated five prosecutions of alleged leakers under the Espionage Act. This is the highest number under any administration. There is no federal shield law in the United States that could allow journalists to protect their sources.

In a story for the New York Times in December 2005, Risen revealed that the Bush administration had been conducting warrantless wiretapping on U.S. citizens. A book by Risen entitled “State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush administration,” that was published in January 2006, included a chapter about the warrantless wiretapping and revealed many other aspects of the Bush administration’s “war on terror.”

President Bush got the Justice Department to open a criminal investigation to try to find Risen’s sources for the warrantless wiretapping story in the New York Times. But the investigators never found anyone they could try to prosecute and Risen was not subpoenaed.

Instead, in 2008, the Bush Administration subpoenaed Risen over a second criminal leak investigation regarding a story that was only in the book (a failed CIA operation involving Iran). Risen was subpoenaed to testify before a grand jury but refused, and the subpoena expired early in the Obama administration.

In 2010, the Obama administration issued Risen with a new grand jury subpoena. He again refused, and U.S. District Court Judge Leonie Brinkema quashed the subpoena. In 2011, the Obama administration issued yet another subpoena, this one for the Sterling trial. Brinkema quashed that subpoena as well, ruling that Risen was required to testify only to certain harmless facts, such as whether or not he wrote the book, and whether it was accurate.

Earlier this month, Brinkema rejected an Obama administration’s motion that tried to get her to reverse her earlier ruling on Risen’s subpoena. The appeal that the Justice Department filed yesterday is against that last ruling.

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