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Press Freedom Fight: Reporter James Risen Faces Subpoena in CIA Whistleblower Case

StoryDecember 17, 2014
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In one of the most significant press freedom cases in decades, the United States government has confirmed that it will seek limited testimony from New York Times reporter James Risen. On Tuesday, Risen was ordered to participate in a hearing early next month in advance of the trial of a former CIA officer who is charged with revealing classified information. However, Risen has vowed not to testify at the trial of Jeffrey Sterling, who is accused of giving him classified information that revealed a botched CIA plot to disrupt Iran’s nuclear program. If he refuses, Risen could face jail time. Prosecutors say they will not ask Risen if Sterling was his source, but it is unclear what else he will be asked. We speak to Marcy Wheeler, investigative blogger who runs EmptyWheel.net and writes for ExposeFacts.org.

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Transcript
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: In one of the most significant press freedom cases in decades, the United States government has confirmed that it will seek limited testimony from New York Times reporter James Risen. On Tuesday, Risen was ordered to participate in a hearing early next month in advance of the trial of a former CIA officer who is charged with revealing classified information. However, Risen has vowed not to testify at the trial of Jeffrey Sterling, who is accused of giving him classified information that revealed a botched CIA plot to disrupt Iran’s nuclear program. If he refuses, Risen could face jail time. Speaking on Democracy Now! earlier this year, Risen emphasized the importance of a free and unhindered press.

JAMES RISEN: Without aggressive investigative reporting, we can’t really have a democracy, because the only real oversight for the government is an independent and aggressive press. And I think that’s what the government really fears more than anything else, is an aggressive investigative reporting in which we shine a light on what’s going on inside the government. And we can’t do that without maintaining the confidentiality of sources.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we go to Grand Rapids, Michigan, where we’re joined by Marcy Wheeler, investigative blogger who runs EmptyWheel.net, writes for ExposeFacts.org.

Marcy, welcome back to Democracy Now! Talk about the significance of what the Justice Department put forward to James Risen yesterday.

MARCY WHEELER: Well, they claim it was a limited request for testimony. They’re asking him to confirm that he wrote the chapter of the book in question, as well as two earlier articles, one which they claim and one in which he explicitly refers to Jeffrey Sterling as a source. So, they’re going to ask to lay out that he did write these articles. They’re going to ask him to say that his source or sources for the chapter in question, he has a confidentiality agreement with. And then they’re also going to—I mean, they’re basically not going to ask him who his sources are, but they are going to get him on the stand. And my—I think what that then does is give the defense the opportunity to be the bad guys, because they have every incentive to try and demonstrate that Risen has more than one source for this story.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: So, your sense is that they would then hope that the defense would then begin to question Risen and put him on the spot?

MARCY WHEELER: Right. I mean, the last line of the filing they submitted yesterday basically said, “Well, this is what we’re going to do, but we can’t control what the defense does, and they have a Sixth Amendment right to actually, you know, confront their accusers.” And Jeffrey Sterling’s lawyers have already started saying, “Look, you know, we have all of these documents from Risen from this period, which aren’t even necessarily related to this story, but things like FedEx receipts, and we might want to ask him about that.”

And one of the—I mean, one of the underlying things that has developed in this case recently is that we now know that four of the other people who were cleared into this compartment for the Merlin story, for the botched nuclear weapons story, they have, according to the CIA, mishandled classified information in the past. And one of those people is the guy who was Sterling’s supervisor at the time, who would be one of the key witnesses against Sterling. And so, I can certainly understand—he’s facing prison time himself—why he would want to at least raise some doubts or raise some questions about how many sources Risen has.

And frankly, I mean, a reporter of James Risen’s caliber doesn’t rely on a single source for a story. And that would then still put Risen in the position of having to reveal details about his reporting, possibly the number of his sources, or what have you, that would get to the same questions the DOJ was getting to and would have the same effect of putting him at risk for contempt of court.

AMY GOODMAN: So that means he still faces years in prison.

MARCY WHEELER: Yeah, I mean, I think that he still could be jailed, because, frankly, in this case, the judge in the case, Leona Brinkema, was sort of saying, “I think the government needs to decide whether they want to take this or not, if they can’t rely on Risen.” She doesn’t have that choice with the defense. I mean, the defense has the right to mount a defense, and the most obvious way for Sterling to do so is to say, “Look, you know, all these other people were cleared into this. They have been confirmed to have brought documents home from work, and therefore there’s no reason why you should assume”—to the jury—”that I am Risen’s only or even his source at all.” And that would rely on digging up details about Risen’s reporting. I mean, I don’t know that’s what the defense wants to do, but that just seems like the obvious thing, and the government is very clear that at this point they have a limited request for Risen, but they can’t control what the defense would do.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And the general implications of this, given the fact that you have a person like James Risen, so well known as a major journalist in the country, having to battle this way, for other journalists, who—the impact, the chilling effect that this has on them?

MARCY WHEELER: Well, absolutely. I mean, remember that Risen was—Risen’s sources were being investigated not just for this story during this entire period, but also for the warrantless wiretap story. And there’s at least the appearance that this limited case was DOJ’s effort to go after Risen directly. And one of the details that has come out in this case is, as I said, the amount of documentation about Risen’s reporting that DOJ already has in hand. And, you know, A, it’s chilling, because it makes it very clear things like phone records, FedEx records, travel records, DOJ is getting that, or at least got that in the case of one of the top investigative journalists in the country. And then, moreover, that they would keep going with this—I mean, this story was years—we’re going back to 2000, right? This is an old story. It’s not a risk to national security anymore, yet DOJ persists and persists in pursuing Risen on the stand. And that just seems like a witch hunt.

AMY GOODMAN: And then the Obama administration may try to force another reporter to testify. Preet Bharara has asked Attorney General Eric Holder to approve a subpoena for 60 Minutes producer [Richard] Bonin over his interactions with an al-Qaeda press office during a period of time?

MARCY WHEELER: Right. And again, I mean, Eric Holder would like to appear as if he doesn’t want to rely on journalists as sources, but time and time again, you know, they at least consider it, even while the government—you know, we keep getting more and more evidence about the government leaking their own information, yet journalists keep getting targeted by DOJ.

AMY GOODMAN: Marcy Wheeler, thanks so much for being with us, investigative blogger who runs EmptyWheel.net and writes for ExposeFacts.org, speaking to us from Michigan.

And this breaking news: ABC is reporting American Alan Gross, who’s been held in prison in Cuba for five years, has been freed and is on his way to the U.S.

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to democracynow.org. Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

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