AP Source: Justice Dept. won’t ask Risen about source

James Risen
James Risen (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Justice Department has ruled out forcing New York Times reporter James Risen to divulge his source in the upcoming trial of a former CIA officer accused of leaking classified information, a person familiar with the matter said Friday night.

The decision comes ahead of a court hearing set for next week at which Justice Department prosecutors had been directed to reveal whether they plan to seek Risen’s testimony.

The person briefed on the matter, who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the decision had not yet been formally announced, said the Justice Department may still subpoena Risen to testify on other topics but would not compel him to divulge the identify of his source.

Risen’s reporting has been at the center of a years-long standoff with the federal government that has contributed to a debate about the line between national security and press freedoms.

Prosecutors allege that Jeffrey Sterling, who is scheduled for trial next month in federal court in Virginia, was a key source in Risen’s 2006 book “State of War,” which detailed a botched CIA effort during the Clinton administration to thwart Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Risen has refused to reveal his sources despite being subpoenaed by the government and did not testify before the federal grand jury that indicted Sterling in 2010.

The trial has long been delayed while lawyers have debated whether Risen enjoys any kind of immunity from being compelled to testify about his interactions with anonymous sources. In June, the Supreme Court let stand a ruling from a federal appellate court that Risen could be subpoenaed and rejected his bid to get the justices to clarify whether journalists have a right to protect their confidential sources.

Attorney General Eric Holder has said no reporter would be sent to jail for doing his or her job, but he has faced repeated criticism for the Justice Department’s handling of national security leak investigations.

In 2013, the government secretly subpoenaed records of telephone lines used by AP journalists as part of its investigation into who leaked information for a 2012 story about a foiled plot in Yemen to bomb a U.S.-bound airliner. The Justice Department also secretly used a warrant to obtain the emails of a Fox News reporter, a decision Holder singled out in October as one he wished “could have been done differently.”

Those cases prompted the Justice Department to issue new guidelines new guidelines for obtaining records from news media organizations in leak investigations.

In the Risen case, Holder has suggested that he was hopeful the situation could be defused in an acceptable way for both sides.

Earlier this week, U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema this week ordered prosecutors to announce at a Dec. 16 hearing whether they plan to call Risen as a witness.

In her one-page order, Brinkema also asked prosecutors to reveal “any conditions or limitations” they have worked out with Risen’s attorneys. She said the Justice Department has had more than six months to decide whether it would subpoena Risen to testify at the trial, which is scheduled to start Jan. 12.

“Because Mr. Risen’s presence or absence at the trial will have a significant impact on how the parties present their case, a decision about Mr. Risen must be made sufficiently before trial to enable the parties to prepare adequately,” she wrote in the order.

Risen did not immediately return an email seeking comment.

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