Now is not exactly the best time for Obama's Justice Department to be subpoenaing one of
the nation's best journalists for reporting on a spectacularly botched CIA operation, but that's the decision Attorney General Eric Holder faces this week.
A federal Judge in Virginia has given the government until next Tuesday to decide whether they want to re-issue their subpoena for New York Times reporter James Risen in the case of alleged leaker and whistleblower Jeffrey Sterling. The case stems from a chapter in Risen's 2006 book State of War that details a CIA failed plot where, after a series of clamatous errors, one of their agents hands over nuclear bomb blueprints to Iran. (You can read an edited version of the chapter here.)
The New York Times reported Wednesday that "In a one-page order, [the judge] noted, with seeming impatience, that the government had had "over six months" to make up its mind, and set a deadline of next Tuesday for it to commit to a position on Mr. Risen." Risen has repeatedly stated he would go to jail before testifying.
On the heels of the CIA torture report, it's hard to imagine the the Justice Department will want to bring more attention to another spectacular failure of the CIA. But just as they are trying to fight to keep secret their own investigation into CIA torture, they have shown no signs that they plan on stopping their pursuit of a reporter who's been exposing CIA wrongdoing for over a decade. Risen has continued to report on the CIA torture regime this week, even while facing the Justice Department's deadline.
Attorney General Eric Holder has previously said, "As long as I'm attorney general, no reporter who is doing his job is going to go to jail." While his statement is welcome, the Justice Department has many ways of escaping it. Holder also plans on leaving office early next year, and his successor is not bound by his promise. His deputy James Cole refused to answer questions as to whether the DOJ consideres protecting a source part of a reporter's "job." The DOJ can also recommend the judge hold Risen in contempt and fine him for every day he does not comply, instead of jailing him—which would be as bad or worse.
Sadly, no matter what happens, the Justice Department has already done lasting damage to press freedom for eviscerating reporter's privilege for all future cases in the Fourth Circuit. We again call on them to do the right thing and drop their plans to subpoena Risen for doing his job.