U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has decided not to force a New York Times reporter to reveal his sources, a senior Justice Department official announced Friday, preempting its Tuesday deadline for a decision on the matter.
The reporter, James Risen, has been embroiled in a court battle for years to stop prosecutors from compelling him to reveal the main source for a book he wrote about the CIA’s attempt to undermine Iran’s nuclear weapons program.
In “The State of War,” published in 2006, Risen not only reveals the CIA plot, but alleges that the Bush Administration has transformed Afghanistan into a "narco-state," providing 80 percent of the world’s heroin supply.
The government originally subpoenaed Risen during a federal trial of a former CIA official, Jeffrey Sterling, whom they suspected was the main source for the book and leaked classified information.
Sterling faces 10 felony charges for allegedly gathering the information and passing it along to Risen, including details of a CIA conspiracy to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program by giving the country defective blueprints.
According to the Justice Department, Holder has now exempted Risen from having to disclose the "information about the identity of his source."
Norman Solomon, executive director of the Institute for Public Accuracy, wrote a letter to the Attorney General and President Barack Obama. The petition, which garnered more than 100,000 signatures, expressed the message to Holder and Obama: “We urge you in the strongest terms to halt all legal action against Mr. Risen and to safeguard the freedom of journalists to maintain the confidentiality of their sources.”
Solomon commended the attorney general’s decision on Friday.
“This is a big victory for defying illegitimate authority. The Bush and Obama administrations have tried to coerce and intimidate James Risen with a series of subpoenas beginning in early 2008,” he said in a statement appearing in the Institute of Public Accuracy.
“Nearly seven years later, a crucial lesson from his refusal to back down is that journalists — and the rest of us — must not give an inch to government officials who are trying to undermine the First, Fourth and Fifth Amendments.”
Risen could still be asked to testify in Sterling’s upcoming trial scheduled for next month in Alexandria, Virginia. But if subpoenaed, the Times reporter would only have to state that his book was generally true to the facts and that it relied on one or more confidential sources.
The Risen case is the latest in an upsurge of charges against journalists in the U.S. since the Bush Administration. A 20-page report compiled by the First Amendment Center of journalists jailed and subpoenaed in the U.S. for journalistic activity, going back to the year 1735, has skipped years in between until about 2001, where there was at least one case each year until 2006. But it didn’t stop there.
In 2006, U.S. District Judge William Alsup in San Francisco found independent reporter Josh Wolf in contempt of court for failing to disclose sources after being subpoenaed to a grand jury. Wolf made tapes of a demonstration that took place in San Francisco, and posted some of their footage on his website, thisrevolution.blogspot.com. The videos showed protesters burning a police car. Wolf then sold that content to local TV stations. Federal prosecutors demanded Wolf release the other tapes he had, saying burning a police car is a federal crime and that the recordings would reveal evidence of who committed the arson.
Wolf was sentenced to prison. After 226 days behind bars, he handed over the uncut video footage to prosecutors and was released on April 23, 2007, qualifying him as one of the longest incarcerated journalists in modern U.S. history, according to the First Amendment Center.
In the last six years, The Washington Post reported that the Obama Administration has prosecuted six leaked cases, involving Associated Press reporters and others.