Uncertain Future for NY Times Reporter Protecting Confidential Source

It’s been more than three months since the Supreme Court turned down an appeal from Pulitzer-winning New York Times investigative reporter James Risen, who continues to face the looming threat of jail over his refusal to reveal a confidential source.

Back in June, the Supreme Court basically sided with the government by turning down Risen’s appeal related to a case whereby prosecutors are attempting to secure evidence in what they say is a national security prosecution.

In turn, journalists contend the government is infringing upon Risen’s press freedom by demanding he turn over a confidential source from a chapter in his 2006 book, State of War.

Prosecutors have said that they need Risen’s testimony to verify that the source was a former C.I.A official, Jeffrey Sterling.

In June, the Times reported that the case against Sterling was related to Operation Merlin, a C.I.A. plan to sabotage Iranian nuclear research by selling faulty blueprints to Iran.

Prosecutors maintain that Risen obtained this information directly from Sterling, which is why they want Risen’s testimony to prove Sterling leaked classified information.

Sonny Albarado, a former president of the Society of Professional Journalists and self-proclaimed ardent supporter of journalists’ 1st Amendment rights, described Risen as “one of scores of victims of the culture of secrecy that has enveloped the federal government since 9/11.”

Albarado also said that President Obama has not lived up to his first-term promise to be “the most transparent administration in history.” Otherwise, said Albarado, Obama would have “pushed his Justice Department to stop pursuing Mr. Risen long ago.”

Asked whether he thought Risen could go to jail for not giving up his source, Albarado was not optimistic.

“…I fear the odds indicate that he might,” Albarado said.  “Mr. Obama’s administration is in a bind with this case: Proceed and continue punishing reporters for doing their jobs. Or, as The New York Times said June 27, stand down and lose face with an intelligence community that wants leaks aggressively prosecuted.”

Courtney C. Radsch, Ph.D., advocacy director for the Committee to Protect Journalists, said that the ongoing case against Risen is troubling because it undermines the ability of journalists to inform the public and act as a watchdog on government.

“This White House has claimed to be the most transparent in history yet it has used the Espionage Act more than all other administrations combined to crack down on government leakers, which deters sources from talking to journalists and chills journalists from pursuing important stories,” Radsch said.

She also noted that Attorney General Eric Holder had said he would not prosecute the journalists who published the Snowden documents, but the administration has so far refused to withdraw its subpoena of Risen, meaning he could face harsh fines or imprisonment.

“The administration should think about the message this would send not only to other journalists working in the United States, but to governments around the world who seek to use national security laws and over classification as a way to circumscribe press freedom,” Radsch added.

Meanwhile, Risen’s attorney, Joel Kurtzberg, was no more sanguine about his client’s chances of escaping punishment for sticking to his journalistic guns.

“Mr. Risen is still facing possible jail time, and the government has not dropped its demand,” he said. “The timing going forward is unclear.”

He added, “Right now, we’re waiting to hear what the government’s next step will be.”

Do you think reporters should always be protected from revealing confidential sources? Tell us in the comments or tweet us @10000Words.