When Will the Government Stop Trying to Send This Reporter to Jail for Telling the Truth?
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
If you blinked at the end of June, you may have missed one of the best pieces of journalism in 2014. The New York Times headline accompanying the story was almost criminally bland, but the content itself was extraordinary: A top manager at Blackwater, the notorious defense contractor, openly threatened to kill a US State Department official in 2007 if he continued to investigate Blackwater’s corrupt dealings in Iraq. Worse, the US government sided with Blackwater and halted the investigation. Blackwater would later go on to infamously wreak havoc in Iraq.
But what makes the story that much more remarkable is that its author, journalist James Risen, got it published amidst one the biggest legal battles over press freedom in decades – a battle that could end with the Justice Department forcing him into prison as early as this fall. It could make him the first American journalist forced into jail by the federal government since Judith Miller nearly a decade ago.
For years, the Justice Department, first under the Bush administration and now under Obama, has been aggressively pursuing Risen to testify against one of his alleged sources who is the subject of a leak prosecution. Risen’s most well-known scoop is the one that won him a Pulitzer Prize in 2006: exposing the Bush-era illegal warrantless wiretapping by the NSA, under threat of Espionage Act prosecution. But the Justice Department has been officially pursuing him about another story for years – a tale first published around the same time, in his book State of War.
In a riveting chapter that the Guardian exerpted at the time, Risen recounts the story of a spectacularly botched CIA operation wherein a Russian defector under US government control ends up essentially handing over near complete nuclear bomb blueprints to Iran. Yes, you read that right. You can read an edited version of the chapter here.
As Risen wrote in a compelling affidavit for his case, to root out his sources, the government has accessed his phone records, along with his email records, and even his credit card statements. He has been harassed for more than five years, from a Republican administration to a Democratic one for doing a single thing: vowing to protect his sources, the quintessential duty of any decent reporter.
The case has become one of the great shames of Obama’s Justice Department, which has pursued Risen with increased vigor, and in the process, done irreparable damage to the rights of every US journalist – indeed, to the rights of every American who wants to know newsworthy events which its government deliberately keeps in the shadows.
In 2012, when appealing Risen’s victory in lower court, the Justice Department argued that not only should Risen be forced to testify, but that in national security cases, reporter’s privilege – the right of journalists to keep sources confidential, like doctors do with their patients – should not exist at all. The government even compared journalists to someone receiving drugs from a dealer. As the Huffington Post reported in 2012:
[The Justice Department lawyer] said what Risen did was ‘analogous’ to a journalist receiving drugs from a confidential source, and then refusing to testify about it.
‘You think so?’ [the judge] asked, clearly unconvinced.
‘The beneficiary of the privilege is the public … the people’s right to know,’ [the judge] said. ‘We need to know what the government is doing,’ he noted. ‘The king never wants anyone to disclose.’
Despite the court’s initial skepticism, the Justice Department convinced the Fourth Circuit to eviscerate reporter’s privilege in its jurisdiction. The case will no doubt have lasting and profound consequences for the public’s right to know about the government’s national security policy, as the Fourth Circuit covers Maryland and Virginia, where many of the nation’s best national security reporters live and work.