The Fight Continues

June 12, 2014 • Ethics and Quality, Media and Politics • by

When the US Supreme Court recently turned down an appeal from James Risen, a Pulitzer-Prize winning reporter for the New York Times, it effectively declined to settle a long-simmering debate about the legal consequences of reporting leaks. Now the insecurity is being prolonged and Risen might have to go to jail because he refused to give up a confidential source to the US government. Risen’s reaction was as terse as it was unequivocal: “I will continue to fight,” he told the New York Times.

The case centers on a chapter in the book “State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration” that Risen published in 2006. It’s about a clandestine CIA plan to sabotage Iranian nuclear research. Risen had been ordered a subpoena in 2008 to testify in the trial of Jeffrey Sterling, a former CIA official who was charged with leaking classified information. For six years prosecutors of the US Justice Department have been trying years to get Risen to give up the source of his information.

Here’s an overview about reactions in this heated debate.

The Supreme Court missed an opportunity to “clean up the mess,” writes Erik Wemple of the Washington Post. “If there’s a silver lining in the court’s restraint, it’s that it didn’t jump in and affirm the appeals ruling against Risen.” Wemple also provides good context for this complicated case.

The issues of protecting confidential sources “desperately needs clarity,” writes Rem Rieder of USA Today and laments the Court’s inactivity. “This a big deal not just for journalists but for the general public, as well. There are cases in which whistle-blowers need anonymity to protect their lives or their livelihoods when they reveal information important to the public welfare — about corruption, unsafe conditions, environmental risks and on and on. It’s unconscionable for reporters to face time in the slammer for doing their jobs and honoring their pledges.”

Not so fast, says Matthew Cooper of Newsweek, who had been a target of government pressure himself when he refused to give up confidential information in the Valerie Plame case. He argues that the Supreme Court did Risen and the freedom of the press a favor because “if the court had taken the case, it almost certainly would have ruled against Risen and emerged with an opinion setting back press rights even more.”

Roger Parloff of Fortune notes the timeliness of the Risen case. “Every reporter who won a Pulitzer Prize this year for reporting the leaks of Edward Snowden would be—without a shadow of a doubt—in Risen’s shoes were it not for the rare twist that Snowden chose to reveal his own identity (after fleeing the country).”

The New York Times firmly stands behind Risen. “Jim Risen is a groundbreaking national security reporter who continues to do powerful work,” Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet told the Poynter Institute. “Journalists like Jim depend on confidential sources to get information the public needs to know. The court’s failure to protect journalists’ right to protect their sources is deeply troubling.”

Risen also received support from 20 news organization and press groups. In an amicus brief to the Court they had urged the justices to take up Risen’s petition and clarify the existence of a reporter’s privilege. The Committee to Protect Journalists called on the United States Department of Justice to withdraw a subpoena seeking to force Risen to give testimony that would reveal a confidential source. Last year the Committee published a special report about the Obama administration’s aggressive efforts in pursuing leak investigations.

At this point, it’s up to the US Justice Department to decide whether it chooses to send Risen to jail. Before the ruling Attorney General Eric Holder hinted at the possibility of not pursuing this option. “As long as I’m attorney general, no reporter who is doing his job is going to go to jail,” he said in a meeting with journalists. “As long as I’m attorney general, someone who is doing their job is not going to get prosecuted.”

Photo credit: SalFalko / Flickr Cc

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