When the Bush administration pursued legal action against New York Times reporter James Risen to discover the source of his leaks for the book State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration, critics charged the White House with conducting a vendetta. The Times had published a series of leaks from inside the counterterrorist operations of the federal government, most of which Risen had written or co-written. However, if Risen was looking for a little Hope and Change in the Obama era, the new administration had a surprise for him:
The Obama administration is seeking to compel a writer to testify about his confidential sources for a 2006 book about the Central Intelligence Agency, a rare step that was authorized by Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.
The author, James Risen, who is a reporter for The New York Times, received a subpoena on Monday requiring him to provide documents and to testify May 4 before a grand jury in Alexandria, Va., about his sources for a chapter of his book, “State of War: The Secret History of the C.I.A. and the Bush Administration.” The chapter largely focuses on problems with a covert C.I.A. effort to disrupt alleged Iranian nuclear weapons research. …
Mr. Risen and a colleague won a Pulitzer Prize for a December 2005 New York Times article that exposed the existence of the National Security Agency’s warrantless surveillance program. While many critics — including Barack Obama, then a senator — called that program illegal, the Bush administration denounced the article as a damaging leak of classified information and opened an investigation into its sources. No one has been indicted in that matter.
The second chapter in Mr. Risen’s book provides a detailed description of the program. But Mr. Kurtzberg said the Justice Department was seeking information only about Mr. Risen’s sources for the ninth chapter, which centers on the C.I.A.’s effort to disrupt Iranian nuclear research. That material did not appear in The Times.
The chapter dealt with a clumsy attempt at disinformation from the CIA in February 2000. The agency had hoped to derail Iranian research into nuclear weapons by surreptitiously giving them designs with flaws that would have rendered the devices impotent. Unfortunately, the Russian scientist who was supposed to give Tehran the plans found the flaws so obvious that he needed to correct them in order to maintain his own credibility. Just as unfortunately, no one knows whether the Iranians had figured out that the Russian scientist at the center of the plot was working for the CIA prior to the publication of Risen’s book, which the Times notes in this report.
The Bush administration got a subpoena in January 2008, but Risen stalled until after the election. He may have presumed that Barack Obama would not force his testimony on the matter, a perhaps reasonable assumption given the tacit support Senator Obama had expressed for Risen’s other exposés noted by the Times in this report. Instead, Eric Holder pursued a new subpoena — and now Risen has to either testify about his sources or go to jail for contempt of court.
Earlier this week, I covered a controversy about California’s shield law and noted that journalists have to protect sources in order to report effectively. I also argued that an exception should be made for national-security matters, given the nature of those efforts and the need to keep our tactics and assets from public exposure. Those who see wrongdoing within the system have other channels to use — either through the chains of command, or by going to Congress. This case, though, has the complication that the incident reported by Risen had been brought to Congress, which declined to act on it. Still, the leaker chose a rather uncourageous method of dealing with the failure; he or she could have made this information public and borne the consequences of breaking the laws on confidentiality for this material and putting the life of a CIA source at risk.
Overall, the White House and the DoJ made the right decision to enforce those laws through this subpoena.