Court Forces Journalist to Reveal Sources — Is It Game Over For Sensitive Reporting?

A U.S. Federal Appeals Court ruled on Friday that the New York Times journalist James Risen must testify without limitation in the trial of a former CIA officer who is accused of leaking classified information to the media. This means that Risen will no longer be able to protect a source, a decision that could undermine investigative journalism in the United States.

The Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 yesterday to reverse a lower court judge’s decision to establish limitations on reporter James Risen’s testimony at the trial of former CIA officer Jeffery Sterling. The judge originally ordered that Risen could be questioned about the accuracy of his reporting but could not be asked to reveal his confidential sources. Sterling, whose work for the Central Intelligence Agency focused on spying efforts against Iran, was arrested in 2011 and charged with providing classified information to a reporter, one of several examples of the Obama administration cracking down on leaks of government information to the media. According to the Washington Post, the original indictment, handed down in 2011, “does not identify the alleged recipient of the classified information. But former U.S. Intelligence officials and lawyers familiar with the case said the journalist is New York Times reporter James Risen.”

Amazingly, this decision comes just days after Attorney General Eric Holder’s presentation to the White House of a policy change that is designed to provide broad protections to journalists and their sources. The changes have not gone into effect yet, but according to RT, supposedly mandate that journalists “carrying out ‘ordinary news gathering activities’ cannot be served with a warrant involving their own investigative work unless the reporter himself is the subject of a criminal investigation.” However, regarding the appeals decision, Peter Carr, a Justice Department spokesman, said in a statement: “We agree with the decision. We are examining the next steps in the prosecution of this case.”

The three judges in the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals have ruled that neither the First Amendment, nor a significant body of case laws concerning the protection of anonymous sources used by investigative journalists. will save James Risen from having to testify in the case of Jeffery Sterling. While most journalists are acutely aware of the current climate for whistleblowers and leakers of state secrets, this decision will likely further discourage potential sources from seeking out journalists to tell their stories and establishes a very worrying precedent.