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James Risen arriving at court Monday in Virginia. (Photo: AP)

Defending Press Freedom, NYT Reporter Refuses to Reveal Key Details in Whistleblower Case

'In my stories or my book, where I say I had unidentified sources, I had unidentified sources,' James Risen told prosecutors in court Monday

Deirdre Fulton

New York Times reporter James Risen, who has been at the center of a pivotal press freedom case, refused on Monday to answer questions that could help prosecutors build their case against a former CIA officer who is set to go on trial soon on charges of providing classified information to Risen for his 2006 book detailing a failed CIA effort to undermine Iran's alleged nuclear weapons program.

Risen took the stand for 45 minutes in a federal courtroom in Alexandria, Virginia, during a pretrial hearing intended to preview what he would say at trial if the Justice Department orders him to testify in the case of Jeffrey Sterling, the officer accused of leaking the details reported in Risen's book.

The hearing, which took place at the order of Attorney General Eric Holder, was described as "unusual" by several news outlets.

The Washington Post reported:

...Risen ducked some questions from prosecutors by awkwardly repeating talking points and outright refused to answer others. He confirmed the basics — testifying that he had written the book at the center of the case and two other articles, one which quotes the former agent, Jeffrey Sterling, by name.

But he refused to say whether he had any "non-confidential relationship" with Sterling, as his quoting the former agent might suggest, and repeated more than once that he was unwilling to help support prosecutors' narrative.

"I am not willing to provide information that in any way would prove or disprove a mosaic that the government is trying to make," Risen said.

According to the New York Times:

Prosecutors did not ask Mr. Risen for the information they fought for years to elicit: the identity of his sources, where he met them and what information they provided. Instead, prosecutors focused largely on basic information that Mr. Risen had already said publicly, such as the fact that he relied on confidential sources for his book and that he separately interviewed Mr. Sterling for an unrelated article for The Times.

But even getting that information from Mr. Risen did not come easily, sending a clear signal to prosecutors that if they forced him to take the stand at trial, he would not be a friendly witness. In one exchange, Mr. Trump tried to get Mr. Risen to acknowledge that he had had a confidential source for Chapter 9 and had promised that source confidentiality.

"In my stories or my book, where I say I had unidentified sources, I had unidentified sources," Mr. Risen said again and again. "Where I say I had identified sources, I had identified sources."

Based on Risen's recalcitrance, Sterling's lawyers said they would ask U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema to dismiss the case: "The terse, and at times combative, testimony prompted a lawyer for Sterling to question whether prosecutors could even proceed with their case," Reuters reported.

"It’s unclear how Brinkema will rule, but her earlier rulings have suggested she believes the government has a reasonable chance of proving its case without Risen identifying his sources or providing the missing details noted by the defense lawyer," Politico noted. "The judge said it would now be up to either side to decide whether it wishes to call Risen at Sterling’s trial, for which jury selection is slated to begin next Monday."

While Risen's role in the trial has had and will continue to have ramifications for press freedom, Sterling's case overall has its implications for whistleblowers, media critic and author Norman Solomon pointed out on Monday.

"Risen’s unwavering stand for the confidentiality of sources is admirable," he said. "At the same time, Sterling—who faces 10 felony counts that include seven under the Espionage Act—is no less deserving of support."

Solomon continued:

Revelations from brave whistleblowers are essential for the informed consent of the governed. With its hostilities, the Obama Justice Department is waging legalistic war on our democratic rights to know substantially more about government actions than official stories. That’s why the imminent courtroom clash in the case of United States of America v. Jeffrey Alexander Sterling is so important.

...The relentless prosecution of Sterling targets potential whistleblowers with a key implicit message: Do not reveal any “national security” secrets that make the U.S. government look seriously incompetent, vicious, mendacious or dangerous. Don’t even think about it.

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