January 15, 2015

New York Times reporter wins legal battle with Obama administration


New York Times reporter James Risen, via UCB Graduate School of Journalism

New York Times reporter James Risen, via UCB Graduate School of Journalism

On Monday, Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter James Risen’s fight with the Obama administration finally came to an end, when Justice Department prosecutors announced that they would not call Risen to testify at the trial of Jeffrey Sterling, a former CIA officer.

The announcement marked the end of a seven-year-long conflict that first began during President George W. Bush’s second term, when Justice Department officials subpoenaed Risen to testify. The Bush administration accused Sterling of sharing with Risen the extraordinarily embarrassing details of a botched CIA operation intended to cripple Iran’s nuclear program.

Risen reported on the story in his 2006 book State of War, and while the details of Operation Merlin are worth absorbing in all of their grotesquerie, the Guardian’s excerpt of the book provides a cheat sheet of a messy scandal whose details (a Russian defector, flawed blueprints, double agents, meetings in Vienna) seem too outrageous for a John le Carré novel—much less real life:

Iran has spent nearly 20 years trying to develop nuclear weapons, and in the process has created a strong base of sophisticated scientists knowledgeable enough to spot flaws in nuclear blueprints. Tehran also obtained nuclear blueprints from the network of Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan, and so already had workable blueprints against which to compare the designs obtained from the CIA. Nuclear experts say that they would thus be able to extract valuable information from the blueprints while ignoring the flaws.

Though Risen had begun to battle with the Justice Department before President Obama was elected, it was Eric Holder, Obama’s attorney general, whose name became most closely associated with the case against Risen, and the administration’s unprecedented pursuit of leakers and whistleblowers. (It didn’t help that the administration was accused of spying on Risen.)

Throughout the unfolding of the Sterling case, Risen risked jail, and while Holder ultimately instructed prosecutors not to force Risen to reveal his sources for State of War, a long and public battle with an acclaimed reporter investigating government overreach for the nation’s most important newspaper wasn’t exactly good for PR. According to said newspaper:

[Holder’s subpoenas against Risen and others] provoked a backlash among journalism groups and civil rights advocates, and as Mr. Risen’s case dragged on, Mr. Holder, who has announced plans to leave office, signaled a change in policy. He rewrote the Justice Department’s rules for subpoenaing journalists and said he would not try to put reporters in jail for doing their jobs.

The Times also spoke to Risen’s lawyer, who was clearly pleased about his client’s fate, but less than optimistic about the fate of journalists under justice departments less sensitive to bad PR:

“I worry about future administrations. Now there’s bad precedent, and not every executive branch in the future will exercise their discretion the way this one did. It didn’t have to go this way.”

It certainly didn’t. We can only hope that it doesn’t happen again.


Mark Krotov is senior editor at Melville House.