"I’ve been an investigative reporter for a long time, and almost always, the government says that [‘you can’t publish that because of the national security risk’] when you write a story. And then they can never back it up. They say that about everything. And it’s like the boy who cried wolf. It’s getting old." - James Risen
New York Times reporter James Risen has been ordered to testify in the criminal trial of former Central Intelligence Agency official Jeffrey Sterling, who has been indicted under the Espionage Act of 1917 – for leaking classified information to Risen for publication in his book, State of War. Last month, the US court of appeals for the fourth circuit in Richmond, Virginia, ruled that Risen could not claim a reporter’s privilege under the first amendment to win exemption from being compelled to testify.
In effect, the court has ruled that the journalist must reveal his source. That sets a dangerous precedent now applicable in Maryland and Virginia, home to the NSA and CIA – the very states in which national security journalism matters most. If a reporter cannot guarantee confidentiality to an important source willing to provide information that may be of vital public interest, the job of journalism itself has been criminalised. If a reporter like Risen refuses to co-operate and name names, he himself may face time behind bars.
Indeed, like a dedicated few before him, Risen has vowed to go to prison rather than break his vow of confidentiality in the courtroom. Although there will almost certainly be an appeal, the court’s ruling is a potentially devastating blow to investigative journalism. Given its significance, it is shocking how little publicity the Risen/Sterling case has yet received from major media outlets with a direct interest in its outcome.