Ever since New York Times reporter James Risen received his first subpoena from the Justice Department more than six years ago, occasional news reports have skimmed the surface of a complex story. The usual gloss depicts a conflict between top officials who want to protect classified information and a journalist who wants to protect confidential sources. Meanwhile, Jeffrey Sterling—a former undercover CIA officer now facing charges under the Espionage Act, whom the feds want Risen to identify as his source—is cast as a disgruntled ex-employee in trouble for allegedly spilling the classified beans.
But the standard media narratives about Risen and Sterling have skipped over deep patterns of government retaliation against recalcitrant journalists and whistleblowers. Those patterns are undermining press freedom, precluding the informed consent of the governed and hiding crucial aspects of US foreign policy. The recent announcement of Eric Holder’s resignation as attorney general has come after nearly five years of the Obama administration extending and intensifying the use of the Justice Department for retribution against investigative journalism and whistleblowing.
Official enmity toward Risen had simmered for years before the Bush administration sent him a subpoena on January 24, 2008. Shortly before the 2004 presidential election, Risen and his colleague Eric Lichtblau put together breakthrough reporting on a warrantless domestic-wiretap program. As it sometimes does with stories deemed sensitive for national security, the Times notified the government of its intent to publish. But under strong pressure from White House officials—including some later implicated in the legally suspect program—Times editors delayed the story’s publication for over a year, until December 2005. The coverage won Risen and Lichtblau a Pulitzer Prize for “carefully sourced stories on secret domestic eavesdropping that stirred a national debate.” It was the kind of debate that the people running the US surveillance state had been desperate to avoid.
The belated publication of those stories came just before Risen brought out a book that contained reporting on the wiretap program and several other sinister initiatives under categories like “counterterrorism” and “counterproliferation.” On January 13, 2006, the week after Risen’s book State of War reached the stores, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales told a news conference that an investigation into the Times wiretap stories was under way and that “it’s too early to make decisions regarding whether or not reporters should go to jail.” Though not apparent at the time, facts later emerged to show that Gonzales was implicated in the illegal wiretapping that Risen exposed. (As White House counsel, Gonzales had authorized continued operation of the program after the Justice Department refused to do so.)
It turned out that the Justice Department was not able to prosecute any whistleblower or make legal trouble for any journalist in connection with the wiretap revelations. But as attorney general—an office he assumed in early 2005—Gonzales ran the department as it collected information that would not only jeopardize the confidentiality of Risen’s sources but also impede his ongoing reporting. Risen’s book, a bestseller, included a chapter that became the ostensible reason for the series of subpoenas and legal threats that have been aimed at Risen since George W. Bush began his final year in the Oval Office.