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Court rules journalists can’t keep their sources secret

Published time: July 19, 2013 21:04
Edited time: July 20, 2013 16:41
Reuters / Russell Boyce

Reuters / Russell Boyce

A federal appeals court ruled Friday that New York Times journalist James Risen must testify in the trial of a former Central Intelligence Agency officer accused of leaking classified national defense information to the media.

A lower court ruled previously that Risen could protect the source responsible for sharing intelligence about a CIA operation discussed in his writing, but the US Court of Appeals from the Fourth Circuit reversed that decision Friday morning with a 2-1 vote.

The reporter must appear and give testimony just as every other citizen must. We are not at liberty to conclude otherwise,” Chief Judge William Traxler Jr. wrote for the majority opinion.

The appeal panel’s decision came just days after United States Attorney General Eric Holder presented President Barack Obama with a proposal that would re-shape current law as it applies to journalists in order to more greatly ensure that reporters aren’t targeted during investigations unless other routes that exhausted first. That maneuver came on the heels of two highly public recent Justice Department scandals in which the White House was revealed to have subpoenaed the phones records for several Associated Press offices and also the email history of Fox News reporter James Rosen.

"Journalists should not be at legal risk for doing their jobs. Our focus must be on those who break the law," Obama said during a May 23 address after those scandals first surfaced.

With Friday’s ruling, the appeals court weighed whether or not an established precedent would prevent Risen from being asked to disclose the source of his information, but Traxler said, “so long as the subpoena is issued in good faith and is based on a legitimate need of law enforcement, the government need not make any special showing to obtain evidence of criminal conduct from a reporter in a criminal proceeding.”

Next Risen will be expected to testify in the Espionage Act-case against Jeffrey Sterling, a former CIA official accused of disclosing details about a Clinton administration plan to put faulty nuclear weapon blueprints to Iran in an effort to slow down their race to acquiring a nuke. He previously said he’d refuse to speak of his source, however, which would now open up the possibility of being held in contempt of court.

Sterling is one of seven persons accused by President Barack Obama of spying under the Espionage Act, a World War One-era legislation that has previously been used only three times before this administration began targeting leakers.

Judge Roger Gregory, the only justice to vote in the minority, said compelling Risen to testify was a “sad” decision that posed a serious threat to investigative journalism, the Times reported.

Under the majority’s articulation of the reporter’s privilege, or lack thereof, absent a showing of bad faith by the government, a reporter can always be compelled against her will to reveal her confidential sources in a criminal trial,” Gregory wrote. “The majority exalts the interests of the government while unduly trampling those of the press, and in doing so, severely impinges on the press and the free flow of information in our society.”

Judge Traxler disagreed, however, and along with Judge Roger Gregory wrote that even the US Constitution can’t keep Risen from being asked to take the witness stand.

There is no First Amendment testimonial privilege, absolute or qualified, that protects a reporter from being compelled to testify by the prosecution or the defense in criminal proceedings about criminal conduct that the reporter personally witnessed or participated in, absent a showing of bad faith, harassment, or other such non-legitimate motive, even though the reporter promised confidentiality to his source,” Traxler wrote.

Gregg Leslie, the legal defense director for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, told the Times he viewed the verdict as “disappointing,” and even suggested it was a step-backwards only so few days after Holder’s alleged effort to ensure the privacy of sources and reporters.


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