Don’t Force Journalist to Testify Against His Source


Target: Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.

Goal: Drop subpoena that would force journalist James Risen to testify against a source

New York Times journalist James Risen has long been under fire from the Department of Justice for information published in his 2006 book, “State of War.” One chapter contains leaked knowledge of a bungled CIA attempt to submit faulty nuclear weapons plans to Iran. Former CIA agent Jeffrey Sterling, who has since been indicted under the Espionage Act, confided the information to Risen. Risen now refuses to testify against his source in court, choosing instead to uphold confidentiality at the risk of being jailed. Urge the Justice Department to abandon its subpoena and allow a journalist to uphold his oath of confidentiality.

First pressed to appear in May 2011, Risen has defended his refusal to testify, citing a reporter’s privilege under the First Amendment. However, a federal appeals court recently ruled that the First Amendment does not exempt him from subpoena in proceedings of criminal conduct. Risen now faces potential jail time.

Not only does the subpoena threaten journalism as an institution, it is almost completely unnecessary. A recent review, released in early July by the Justice Department, states that forced testimony from new media is necessary “only as a last resort, after all reasonable alternative investigative steps have been taken…” The available evidence against Jeffrey Sterling already implicates him with near certainty and ensures effective prosecution. The subpoena of Risen is—in a word—overkill, as well as an affront to journalistic standards.

As the Obama administration’s crackdown on whistleblowers and information leaks continues—most recently with the cases of Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden—many journalists are concerned with just how far the prosecution will go. Attorney General Eric Holder promises that the Department of Justice “will not prosecute any reporter for doing his or her job.”  But that didn’t stop the department from seizing Associated Press phone records and labeling one Fox News reporter a co-conspirator in actions that violated the Espionage Act.

Often referred to as the Fourth Estate, news media has been as inalienable a right as free speech since the founding of the United States. It is the duty of journalists to hold government accountable and report to the people. The Department of Justice must let James Risen do his job. Implore Attorney General Eric Holder to drop the subpoena.


Dear Attorney General Eric Holder,

The subpoena of James Risen issued by the Department of Justice risks forcing a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter to compromise the very basics of journalism ethics. “The Department has not prosecuted, and as long as I’m attorney general, will not prosecute any reporter for doing his or her job,” you told the Senate Appropriations Committee.

While subpoena is not prosecution, a testimony from James Risen would betray the oath of confidentiality he made to his source, an action that would have drastic ramifications for the entire community of journalism. It would communicate to any potential informants that they are not protected under confidentiality agreements. Concerned citizens and whistleblowers would no longer feel safe revealing important information to journalists. In short, compelling Risen to assist in the incrimination of Jeffrey Sterling, an informant who trusted the reporter, damages the very foundations of journalism.

Moreover, the recent “Report on Review of News Media Policies” tells that journalistic testimony is needed “only as a last resort, after all reasonable alternative investigative steps have been taken, and when the information sought is essential to a successful investigation or prosecution.” In light of this, the knowledge promised by Risen’s subpoena is not even relevant. The court has built its case against Jeffrey Sterling and has enough evidence to charge him.

If a reporter cannot do his of her job properly, how will democracy continue to function? The news media is often likened to the fourth branch of government—our journalists are responsible for holding the abuse of power in check. Without them, how can the public hold discussions on legal matters? Please don’t undermine a journalist’s integrity. Abandon the subpoena of James Risen.


[Your Name Here]

Photo credit: Haxorjoe via Wikimedia Commons

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