James Risen, a reporter for The New York Times who has fought the Obama administration for years rather than reveal his sources of information for a 2006 book, including an account of a botched CIA operation, refused again on Monday to help the Justice Department’s case against its chief suspect.
The case has become a symbol of Obama’s crackdown against information leaks to reporters about national security matters, the Times reported on Tuesday.
It also symbolizes the risks reporters take when accepting confidential information.
In some cases, so-called “shield laws” protect reporters from being forced to disclose sources.
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Still, in Risen’s case as in many others, the risk is that reporters can be called into court and, if they refuse to answer direct questions, they can be jailed like anyone else who withholds information in a legal inquiry.
Risen has been a textbook example of what truly dedicated reporters do in that circumstance. He has resisted, and in so doing has put prosecutors in the extremely uncomfortable position of having to decide whether to send someone to jail for holding the government accountable.
In a speech last fall, the Times said, Risen pointed out that Americans have learned much about their government from reporters in recent years.
“If you took away all the things that the press revealed … in the war on terror, you would know virtually nothing about the history of the last 13 years,” he said.
Prosecutors believe former CIA officer Jeffrey A. Sterling leaked classified information to Risen, but they apparently can’t complete their case without Risen’s testimony.
The Justice Department subpoenaed Risen in 2008, and Attorney General Eric Holder again authorized a subpoena in 2011. Risen fought all the way to the Supreme Court, where he lost.
Meanwhile, Holder had second thoughts about the way the Justice Department was pursuing the case. At times, he said, the crackdown on leaks had gone too far.
Holder said he would not send reporters to jail for doing their jobs, and he said he would not continue trying to force Risen to disclose his source.
On Monday, Risen was back in court. The government soon must move ahead with its case against Sterling or drop it.
Like the script from a TV show, a prosecutor asked whether Risen still will not reveal his source “regardless of any threat of sanctions,” the Times reported.
“Yes,” Risen said.
The prosecutor, following Holder’s guidelines, then only asked Risen to confirm on the witness stand peripheral information he had provided years ago.
Prosecutors have not said whether they will call Risen as a witness again.