The James Risen case and Eric Holder's tarnished press freedom legacy

Eric Holder. Photo: Reuters

Eric Holder. Photo: Reuters

Attorney General Holder raised some eyebrows yesterday when answering a question about his Justice Department's notorious crackdown on leaks, and by extension the press, most notably saying this about its notorious pursuit of New York Times reporter James Risen, while claiming the DOJ did nothing wrong:

If you look at the last case involving Mr. Risen, the way in which that case was handled after the new policies were put in place [is] an example of how the Justice Department can proceed.

James Risen.

James Risen.

The District Sentinel aptly took apart most of Holder's comments, and they also provoked a stinging rebuke from Risen himself last night on Twitter. However, I think the facts of Risen's case deserve a closer look to see just how unbelievable Holder's statement is.

Let's recap: since the very start of the Obama administration (read: for SIX years), the Justice Department was trying to subpoena James Risen. It fought for him to testify at a grand jury of CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling, which he refused to do, and when they were rejected by the court, it fought to have him testify in Sterling's trial. They fought Risen on this all the way up to the Supreme Court.

Also, keep in mind, while the "new" media/leak guidelines that Holder bragged about are certainly a step forward, the old guidelines that applied to Risen's case should have protected him just the same from the start—if they were actually enforced. He doesn't get to pretend the preceding five and a half years didn't happen just because he stregthened the Justice Department's rules after public protest.

The case cost Risen and his publisher an untold fortune in legal fees, dominated his life, took away from time he could've spent reporting, and likely cost the taxpayers millions of dollars.

Along the way, we found out that the government had spied on virtually every aspect of James Risen's digital life from phone calls, to emails, to credit card statements, bank records and more. (By the way, we still have no idea how they got this information. That's secret.)

The Justice Department argued in court that not only was there no reporter's privilege whatsoever—either embedded in the First Amendment or in Fourth Circuit common law— but also that journalists protecting sources was analogous to protecting drug dealers from prosecution.

As a result, the Justice Department got an appeals court to destroy the previously established reporter's privilege in the Fourth Circuit. So now all journalists in the Fourth Circuit—which covers Virginia and Maryland where the vast majority of national security sources live and work—will have no protection if they government comes after them in future cases.

After all this (along with a large public outcry), the government decided to drop its pursuit of James Risen. And of course were able to easily convict Jeffrey Sterling anyways, using evidence gleaned from digital surveillance.

Now the Justice Department wants a pat on the back. While it is unequivocally excellent news that Risen will not be forced into jail, the DOJ's behavior in this case was and still is deplorable. It has done damage to long term press freedom rights that will be very hard to undo, and the idea that this should be looked at as a "model" for future leak investigations is troubling to say the least.