WATERVILLE — New York Times investigative reporter and author James Risen on Sunday said it is critical journalists continue to expose government activities, despite a crackdown on the press by the U.S. in the name of national security.

“Journalists have no choice but to fight back because if they don’t, they will become irrelevant,” Risen said. “I know what Elijah Lovejoy did.”

Risen, 59, was speaking at Lorimer Chapel at Colby College after receiving the Elijah Parish Lovejoy Award for courageous journalism. The award, given annually, is named for Lovejoy, an Albion native and Colby graduate and journalist who was murdered in 1837 while defending his printing press against a pro-slavery mob in Illinois.

A two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, Risen faces the prospect of being imprisoned for refusing to reveal his sources of information about a failed CIA operation to disrupt Iran’s nuclear weapons program.

He detailed that operation in his book “State of War: The History of the CIA and the Bush Administration,” and was subpoenaed by federal prosecutors for refusing to name his sources.

While Risen said Sunday he could not discuss the case specifically, he said that he will always protect those who give him information.

“I would go to jail to protect the confidentiality of sources,” he said.

With a crew from CBS’s “60 Minutes” filming Sunday’s Lovejoy Convocation, Risen spoke to a packed chapel about how the U.S. war on terrorism after 9/11 treats whistle blowers and those who seek to bring the government’s actions to light as criminals. It was much like how Lovejoy was treated — as a disruptive force who became an abolitionist decades before abolitionism had any impact in the broader society, Risen said.

Lovejoy, he said, was a minister whose newspaper was primarily a religious paper, but he hated slavery and that led him to write articles openly opposing slavery three decades before the Civil War. Missouri was a slave state and Lovejoy challenged the conventional wisdom during a time in which slavery was a mainstream view in both the north and the south.

There was virtually no debate at the time in most political circles about abolishing slavery and the mainstream press did not question slavery, Risen said. Lovejoy and others in the abolition movement were considered dangerous radicals whose mental stability was questioned, he said.

Risen said to attack slavery “meant you were attacking the laws of the U.S.”

“By challenging slavery in a slave state like Missouri, Elijah Lovejoy showed special courage.”

Risen said it is important to study abolitionist writers to see what it’s really like to challenge conventional wisdom.

“Of course we now know Elijah Lovejoy was on the right side of history,” he said.

Risen said Americans now slip off their shoes in airports, observe the killing of Americans who have not been given due process and watch the government use torture tactics and conduct mass surveillance of people’s communications.

“Meanwhile, the government has eagerly prosecuted whistle-blowers who have tried to bring any of the government’s actions to light,” he said.

There is a new basic assumption, he said, that there is a need for a global war on terror.

“Today, the U.S. government treats whistle-blowers as criminals, much like Elijah Lovejoy.”

The crackdowns on leaks by the Bush and Obama administrations have come with a “veneer of law,” an attempt to make the crackdowns look legal, he said.

Sandy Maisel, the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Government and director of Colby’s Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs and Civic Engagement, asked Risen what role Attorney General Eric Holder and President Barack Obama have in the prosecution of Risen and other journalists who write exposes on national security issues.

Risen said he and other journalists have debated that issue in the newsroom.

“I don’t think any of this would be happening under the Obama administration if Obama didn’t want to do it,” Risen said. “I think Obama hates the press. I think he doesn’t like the press and he hates leaks.”

Risen said he thinks one of Holder’s most important jobs is to protect Obama from direct criticism.

“He has often tried to do it on this issue.”

New York Times reporter Matt Apuzzo, a 2000 Colby graduate and former reporter for the Morning Sentinel, asked if Risen thought that in some cases, government secrets should be kept as such.

“Should there not be some secrets, in keeping some things safe?” Apuzzo asked.

Risen said there are certain things that should be kept secret, such as information about U.S. combat plans, which should be protected.

“Where is a convoy in Afghanistan going to be in 10 minutes?” Risen said. “That’s the kind of information that has no news value, that we could never get to begin with because it’s so perishable and (there’s) no value to it.”

He said he thinks nothing that has come out in the press so far about the war on terrorism has in any way damaged national security, and every time the government has “cried wolf” on the issue it has failed to prove damage.

“I think it’s one of these things that the government has gotten into the habit of, crying wolf constantly and they’ve lost a lot of credibility on these issues.”

Naomi Schalit, executive director and senior reporter for The Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting and former editorial director for the Morning Sentinel and Kennebec Journal, said she worries that the public is aware of the abstract term “the power of the press,” but is not necessarily deeply aware of what the cost is to the public of prosecuting journalists such as Risen.

Risen said the only reason the public knows about secret prisons and other activities is that whistle-blowers and journalists have written about them.

“If you’d rather live in a society in which you don’t know anything, then that’s the alternative.”

He urged people to read and stay informed through newspapers and television news, as apathy in a society allows the government to get away with a lot.

He said he has three sons, one of whom is a journalist.

“I’m always encouraging them to read more and pay more attention to the news and I think that’s the first step,” he said.

Risen, who also received an honorary doctorate of laws Sunday from Colby President David A. Greene, said he was honored to receive the Lovejoy Award, named for one of his heroes.

While it was Risen’s first time at Colby, he said it was not his first time in the state.

When he was young and his family came to Maine on vacation, they stopped in Augusta and his mother, who was very curious about everything, urged the family to go inside the State House.

A man was walking around inside and Risen’s mother went up to him and started asking him all kinds of questions, he said.

“He just decided to take us around and after a few minutes we realized he was the governor,” Risen said, to laughter from the packed chapel. “It was Kenneth Curtis and he took us into his office and he let me sit in his chair.” Curtis was governor at the time.

Risen said it was his first ever encounter with a politician.

“It’s been all downhill from there,” he said, to more laughter.

Others who have received the Lovejoy Award since it was instituted in 1952 include Bob Woodward, Ellen Goodman, David Halberstam, David S. Broder, Katharine Graham and Carl Rowan.

Before the Lovejoy event, the Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs and Civic Engagement and The Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting hosted a conference on the fundamentals of responsible journalism for college editors and reporters. Panelists included Rebecca Corbett, assistant managing editor of the New York Times and a former Morning Sentinel state editor, and David Shribman, vice president and executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Amy Calder — 861-9247

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Twitter: @AmyCalder17