Last fall, James Risen, an investigative reporter for The New York Times, received the Elijah Lovejoy Award at Colby College. It’s an honor bestowed on journalists who demonstrate at least a fraction of the courage of Lovejoy, who was killed by a pro-slavery mob incensed about his editorials condemning the practice in 1837, long before abolitionism became “mainstream.”

Risen has published many important stories, and two books, about secret and often illegal practices at the National Security Agency and the CIA. I’ve heard many Lovejoy addresses, but rarely has there been a statement as startling as Risen’s assertion, in response to a question, that President Obama “hates the press.”

I don’t think that’s literally true, but it’s easy to understand why Risen thinks so.

One story Risen pursued in 2003 was about a CIA “covert action” to infiltrate the Iranian nuclear program that has caused so much anxiety. Like many such gambits, it backfired. The Russian scientist the CIA “planted” in Iran ended up pointing out flaws in the Iranian designs.

But when The Times was ready to publish, the CIA, which had been asked for comment, dispatched Director George Tenet and National Security Adviser Condolezza Rice to ask editors to spike the story; they did.

Two years later, Risen produced another startling account, detailing how the NSA was collecting large volumes of Americans’ email and phone records without search warrants. He again asked for comment, the White House insisted publication would harm “national security,” and Times Executive Editor Bill Keller killed the story.


It was only when Risen found a publisher for his book, “State of War,” including the NSA story, that The Times reconsidered and published. The 2005 story was a bombshell — the first clue that secret federal agencies were simply disregarding the Constitution in their “War on Terror” electronic monitoring.

Little has changed. In 2013, Edward Snowden, former NSA employee, disclosed a metadata program at the agency that, in essence, collects information about every electronic communication Americans send or receive.

The issues involved are complicated, but the federal response, in both George W. Bush and Obama administrations, is not. Rather than respond to truthful reporting about the flaws and illegalities in secret programs, the government seeks to suppress the facts and punish those who attempt to make them public.

The most shameful episodes under Bush involve the torture of dozens of suspects, many of whom had little or nothing to do with the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The shame of Obama is the zealous prosecution of journalists and their sources, again for the “crime” of committing truth.

Risen’s alleged source for much of the Iran story was a former CIA officer named Jeffrey Sterling. Sterling, like Snowden, is a flawed figure with mixed motives. He was fired by the CIA before he’s thought to have talked to Risen.

But rather than prosecute the former agent, the government decided to force Risen to testify. If investigative journalists named their sources every time the government asked, there would be no investigative reports, and government misdeeds would stay secret forever.


Yet the administration pressed ahead with Risen’s subpoena, claiming his testimony was essential. When he sued, a federal District Court judge found in his favor, but an Appeals Court panel ruled 2-1 against him, despite a stinging dissent arguing that Risen’s, and our, free speech rights were being trampled. Since the Supreme Court declined to hear the case, that ruling is now precedent.

Unlike most states, which have laws or precedents allowing journalists to shield sources in some circumstances, there is no such federal statute, and given our dysfunctional Congress, creating one is unlikely. Any journalist could face the same years-long ordeal as Risen.

In the end, Attorney General Eric Holder dropped the subpoena just before the Sterling trial, after telling Times editors that no reporter would go to jail for withholding a source on his watch. Yet under the Appeals Court decision, a future AG could well decide the opposite.

In one of the case’s many ironies, Sterling ultimately was convicted under the Espionage Act without Risen’s testimony, and will be sentenced in April. Snowden hasn’t been charged because he sought political asylum in, of all places, Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

When I asked Risen whether he saw Snowden as a traitor or a hero, he said, “a whistleblower.”

Good answer. We need whistleblowers, and we need journalists who will tell their stories. Without them, our First Amendment guaranteeing freedom of speech — the most important difference between this nation and the countless tyrannies that have flourished before and since — will become just an empty shell.

Douglas Rooks has covered the State House for 30 years. He can be reached at [email protected]

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