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Common Dreams

Supreme Court Sides with DOJ in Attack on Press Freedom

Rejection of federal appeal by New York Times reporter James Risen seen as crushing blow to investigative journalism

The US Supreme Court has ruled against NYT investigative journalist James Risen. (Photo: Alex Menendez/UCB Graduate School of Journalism/)

The US Supreme Court has ruled against NYT investigative journalist James Risen. (Photo: Alex Menendez/UCB Graduate School of Journalism/)

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday "effectively sided with the government" against embattled New York Times journalist James Risen by rejected his appeal of a lower court ruling challenging the Justice Department's demand that he reveal a confidential source.

"By going after Risen, the Obama administration has done more damage to reporter's privilege than any other case in forty years." —Trevor Timm, Freedom of the Press Foundation

The ruling means that Risen has come to the end of the appeals process in his case and must now either testify in the trial of former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling or face possible jail time. The Department of Justice believes that Sterling is Risen's confidential source, but Risen has consistently refused to confirm that belief, citing press freedoms and his right as a journalist to protect confidential sources. If he refuses to testify—as he has repeatedly said he will—he could be placed in contempt of court and face jail time until he complies.

As the Times itself reports:

The court’s one-line order gave no reasons but effectively sided with the government in a confrontation between what prosecutors said is an imperative to secure evidence in a national security prosecution and what journalists said is an intolerable infringement of press freedom.

The case arose from a subpoena to Mr. Risen seeking information about his source for a chapter of his 2006 book “State of War.” Prosecutors say they need Mr. Risen’s testimony to prove that the source was Jeffrey Sterling, a former Central Intelligence Agency official.

The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, in Richmond, Va., ordered Mr. Risen to comply with the subpoena. Mr. Risen has said he will refuse.

The Obama administration has sent mixed signals in the case and on the subject of press freedom in general. In its Supreme Court brief in the case, Risen v. United States, No. 13-1009, it told the justices that “reporters have no privilege to refuse to provide direct evidence of criminal wrongdoing by confidential sources.”

Fellow journalist Glenn Greenwald expressed his frustration with the court's decision, by tweeting:

Norman Solomon, a journalist and co-founder of the progressive advocacy organization RootsAction, says the ruling exemplifies issues he highlighted in a recent piece, titled An Assault from Obama’s Escalating War on Journalism, written about the Risen case for Common Dreams last week. In comments emailed in the wake of Monday's court decision, Solomon explained:

"Fortunately, what makes James Risen an excellent journalist is also what is making him an excellent protagonist for real freedom of the press." —Norman Solomon,


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Bad as the top court's action was, let's be clear: this is a political problem, and the solutions are political. The Obama administration is hostile to an independent press -- which is to say, hostile toward real journalism -- especially in coverage of so-called 'national security.' No president in our lifetimes has been as determined to interfere with the basic functions of a free press, which must include confidentiality of sources.

I've read thousands of the posted comments by signers of the petition 'We Support James Risen Because We Support a Free Press' -- and it's clear that all over the country a lot of people deeply understand, analytically and at a gut level, what's at stake in the Risen case. We're upset and we're angry. And we should be. The solutions here involve an escalating political outcry and more organizing to counteract Obama's escalating war on journalism -- and his overall efforts to insist that unauthorized information-flow be blocked so that only official stories reach the public.

The continuing Justice Department heavy pressure on Risen should be understood as integral to how Obama's team is doubling down for the surveillance state in the service of the warfare state and its corporate profiteers. A government committed to perpetual war and Wall Street gluttony can only see real journalism as a threat to its anti-democratic power.

Fortunately, what makes James Risen an excellent journalist is also what is making him an excellent protagonist for real freedom of the press. He keeps fighting for information that the public has a right to know, and he keeps fighting against the Obama administration's efforts to choke off sources for non-official stories. We should -- we must -- do the same. It's a fight that's essential for the functional preservation of the First Amendment.

And Trevor Timm, co-founder and executive director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, said in a statement:

This is the latest victory of the Obama administration in their crackdown on sources, and in turn, investigative journalism. As the New York Times again reminded us today, they have "pursued leaks aggressively, bringing criminal charges in eight cases, compared with three under all previous administrations combined."

Make no mistake, this case is a direct attack on the press. The Justice Department has recently tightened its "guidelines" for subpoenaing reporters (which have no enforcement mechanism) and the Obama administration claims it supports a tepid journalist shield law, but this was the case where they could have shown they meant what they said about protecting journalists' rights. Instead, they argued to the court that reporter's privilege does not exist all.

By going after Risen, the Obama administration has done more damage to reporter's privilege than any other case in forty years, including the Valerie Plame leak investigation that ensnared Judy Miller during the Bush administration. The Fourth Circuit is where many national security reporters live and work, and by eviscerating the privilege there, the government has made national security reporting that much harder in an age where there has already been an explosion in use on surveillance to root out sources of journalists.

Seemingly undeterred by the court's decision, Risen himself, according to the Washington Post's Erik Wemple, has vowed to continue to fight for his right to protect sources. Wemple tweeted:

Reaction on Twitter was also trending among journalists, free press advocates, and others:


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