National Security

Press freedom groups file petition to halt legal action against N.Y. Times reporter

James Risen, a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter who's been pressured to disclose confidential sources, speaks to reporters at the National Press Club in Washington. (Alejandro Davila Fragoso/McClatchy)
James Risen, a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter who's been pressured to disclose confidential sources, speaks to reporters at the National Press Club in Washington. (Alejandro Davila Fragoso/McClatchy) McClatchy

For six years James Risen, a reporter of The New York Times, has been battling prosecutors who want him to identify an anonymous source. And despite his setbacks, he’s willing to keep fighting.

“The real reason I’m doing this is for the future of journalism,” Risen said Thursday during a news conference at the National Press Club in Washington.

Risen spoke just hours after a coalition of press freedom organizations submitted more than 100,000 signatures to the U.S. Department of Justice. In the petition, press advocacy groups urged the government to halt legal actions against Risen, who’s been in the past asked to testify in the case of Jeffrey Sterling, a former CIA employee charged with leaking classified information.

Among various things, Sterling is accused of releasing classified information used in Risen’s 2006 book “State of War,” in which the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter described a failed CIA plan to harm an Iranian nuclear program.

Risen has been asked to identify his sources since he was first subpoenaed in 2008. He’s declined while calling for First Amendment protections, to no avail. In June, Risen exhausted his legal appeals when the Supreme Court refused to hear his case.

As result, Risen is now part of a long list of journalists who’ve risked fines or even jail time for keeping the confidentiality of sources. Just last year a New York-based Fox News reporter covering the theater shooting in Aurora, Colo., risked similar penalties when she declined to identify an unnamed source to defense lawyers.

That same year, the Obama administration subpoenaed two months of phone records from the Associated Press to track a leak involving CIA operations in Yemen. And in another case just months later, the Justice Department obtained a search warrant for a Fox News reporter’s emails as it tried to identify another leak.

These incidents have angered press freedom advocacy groups, as well as prominent journalists and media outlets that consider the Risen case as the most recent proof that freedom of the press is being encroached upon.

“There’s just no way to conduct aggressive investigating reporting without a reporter’s privilege of some kind, without confidential sources,” said Risen, who after the news conference said that he doesn’t know what’s going to happen with his case.

Meanwhile, experts note that the Obama administration’s pursuit of leakers and its attempts to use journalists and media outlets in the process is unprecedented and worrisome.

“There is an attitude shift that says it’s OK to go after reporters to get information to use in litigation. That is very dangerous and has a real potential for chilling free speech and free press and reporting on important issues,” Theodore Boutrous, a longtime First Amendment lawyer, said in a recent phone interview.

On Thursday, Risen said he was affected by the pressure to reveal sources. “It’s obviously had an effect, but I’m trying to keep working,” said Risen, who declined to describe more details.

To Boutrous, the Risen case shows that “we need some federal protection,” since courts have in the last two decades often sided with prosecutors when faced with a reporter’s appeal to keep sources confidential.

And while most states have shield laws that partly protect journalists’ sources, attempts to pass a federal policy have failed in the last few years.

Gregg P. Leslie, legal defense director at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said during Thursday’s news conference that “it is time to demand Congress pass a meaningful shield law.”

He later suggested that controversies like the one surrounding Risen are likely to reappear unless action is taken. “It’s going to get worse no matter who is in charge politically,” said Leslie, who believed that a groundswell of public support following the petition could lead to a federal shield law.

“Because Congress doesn’t act in the abstract, it needs to see unfortunately somebody going to jail or threatened with jail to really get going,” he said.