New York Times reporter James Risen ’77 has become one of the latest journalists to be subpoenaed by a federal grand jury.
A subpoena issued last week is attempting to force Risen to reveal confidential sources from a specific chapter in a book he wrote about the CIA, the New York Times reported Feb. 1.
The chapter in question – in Risen’s 2006 book “State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration” – reported that the CIA had unsuccessfully attempted to gain access to Iran’s nuclear program, starting as early as during the Clinton administration.
Risen and fellow New York Times writer Eric Lichtblau won a 2006 Pulitzer Prize for their coverage of the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretapping program. Risen’s “State of War” expanded on his reporting on the wiretapping program. None of the reporting from the chapter in question appeared in the Times.
“We’re going to fight” the subpoena, said David Kelley, Risen’s lawyer. Risen may “file a motion with the court contending that the subpoena should not be enforced because it would violate the First Amendment,” said Kelley, a former U.S. attorney for the southern district of New York.
According to the Times, the subpoena was delivered to the New York-based law firm representing Risen and has ordered his presence in front of a grand jury on Feb. 7 in Alexandria, Va.
Risen, a former Herald staff writer, came to Brown in November 2006 and gave a lecture that was sponsored by The Herald. A growing “climate of fear” in the government was making investigative reporting more difficult, he said then.
In an e-mail, Risen declined to comment on the subpoena for this article.
Kelley said that he isn’t concerned with the administration’s reasons for filing the subpoena. “We’re on the ball here in working on the subpoena and not the motivation behind it,” he said.
Catherine Mathis, a spokeswoman for the Times, wrote in an e-mail that “the New York Times strongly supports Jim Risen, and deplores what seems to be a growing trend of government leak investigations focusing on journalists, particularly in the national security area.”
Other journalists have also recently received federal subpoenas for their investigative work.
In May 2006, San Francisco Chronicle reporters Lance Williams ’72 and Mark Fainaru-Wada were ordered to appear before a federal grand jury and. reveal the confidential source that gave them grand jury testimony relating to the Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative steroids case.
Williams and Fainaru-Wada were each sentenced to 18 months in prison for their refusal to reveal their sources, but were able to avoid serving time when an attorney who had formerly represented BALCO pleaded guilty for leaking the information.
“We never acknowledged that this or that person was our source,” Williams said. “If we didn’t get any relief we would have had to go to jail until the grand jury’s term expired – about two years. You try to play for time – as in the Risen case I’m sure he’ll litigate and try to drag it out and catch a break somewhere.”
Williams said he thinks subpoenas are unreasonable and unjust.
“I understand that the government has secrecy concerns in terms of its investigations, but dragging the press into their secrecy concerns does damage to the First Amendment rights,” he said. “Every time we get a subpoena … the closer we get to the day when the only information we’ll have about our government is from the paid story-spinner.”
The Free Flow of Information Act, commonly known as the media shield act, is a bill that was first proposed in 2006 to ensure the free flow of information to the public, while still maintaining the public’s protection and the fair administration of justice, according to the Open Congress Web site. The act was amended in 2007 to include the protection of bloggers in the same way as journalists.
The Free Flow of Information Act cleared the House in 2007, and Williams said he is hopeful it will soon pass the Senate. “The law would create at the federal level something similar to what all the states have – legislation that gives protection to reporters and their sources,” Williams said. “The judge would have a formal means of deciding whether we have to place the subpoena on the reporter, let’s say for national security reasons. Or is it just the government coming after the reporter because they don’t feel like doing any investigating?”
Kelley said that they may figure the media shield act into their arguments.
Williams said he commiserates with Risen on his upcoming ordeal.
“I have sympathy for him because I know it’s a big distraction when this occurs. You end up spending a lot of your time not being a reporter but being a defendant,” he said. “It’s a hassle.”
Peter Carr, principal deputy director of public affairs for the Justice Department, wrote in an e-mail that “the department does not comment on pending investigations.”