Thus testifies James Risen, the New York Times reporter reviled by the Bush administration for his probes and exposés of highly-classified government efforts to curtail terrorism. Risen may have had his issues with the Bush White House over his scoops and his sources, but they apparently pale in comparison to what he’s experiencing under Bush’s successor. Speaking to a symposium on press freedom, Risen minced no words in describing the threat to journalists from the Barack Obama administration:
New York Times reporter James Risen, who is fighting an order that he testify in the trial of Jeffrey Sterling, a former CIA officer accused of leaking information to him, opened the conference earlier by saying the Obama administration is “the greatest enemy of press freedom that we have encountered in at least a generation.” The administration wants to “narrow the field of national security reporting,” Risen said, to “create a path for accepted reporting.” Anyone journalist who exceeds those parameters, Risen said, “will be punished.”
The administration’s aggressive prosecutions have created “a de facto Official Secrets Act,” Risen said, and the media has been “too timid” in responding.
Toobin appeared on a panel that followed, moderated by Times Supreme Court reporter Adam Liptak, who announced that if he weren’t a paragon of journalistic detachment, he’d say “the persecution of James Risen is a scandal.” The attorney Laura Handman noted that the U.S. Department of Justice’s new guidelines for accessing journalists’ records carve out a big space for the government to decide what constitutes “ordinary newsgathering.”
The panel mentioned Risen and Fox journalist James Rosen, who an FBI agent suggested was a “co-conspirator” in another leak investigation.
It wasn’t just that an FBI agent “suggested” that Rosen was a co-conspirator in espionage. It’s that the allegation was presented as part of a probable-cause warrant to conduct surveillance on Rosen — a move that required the approval of Attorney General Eric Holder, who has dodged questions about how that warrant request got approved.
Jeffrey Toobin and Obama administration lawyer Robert Litt tried to justify the war on reporters:
Robert Litt, the administration’s top lawyer for the national intelligence community, agreed with that statement. At the same conference, he likened reporting on national security leaks to drunk driving, arguing that we ban the practice despite the fact that there isn’t always a victim.
“Not every drunk driver causes a fatal accident,” he explained, “but we ban drunk driving because it increases the risk of accidents. In the same way, we classify information because of the risk of harm, even if no harm actually can be shown in the end from any particular disclosure.”
That’s why we prosecute the leakers, though, and not the reporters. Reporters do not take an oath to protect classified material, although they should exercise a lot more caution and discretion than Risen did in several instances at the NYT. That’s a matter of ethics, not law. The leakers are the criminals in this case, with some limited exceptions for true whistleblowing actions.
No one argued that the Bush administration went easy on journalists. We heard plenty of complaints about crackdowns on leakers during those eight years, some of which were more than justified in both crackdowns and complaints about them. However, until Obama took office, the federal government wasn’t swearing out surveillance warrants on reporters by accusing them of conspiring to commit espionage. The hostility to press freedom comes from the same impulse that limits other freedoms — to control the people through misinformation and a lack of accountability, so as to expand power even further. It’s not just in the area of press freedom that this administration has become the greatest threat in a generation.