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An investigative reporter for The New York Times, Risen was told by a divided 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to identify his source and testify in the trial of former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling, who’s charged with leaking classified information to Risen in violation of the Espionage Act, a dusty law cited with new frequency by the administration in efforts to crack down on leakers. Risen, despite the threat of imprisonment, has refused.
“James Risen is not just one of the best investigative reporters in the country. He is a journalist of enormous principle and courage, so committed to the public’s right to know that he is willing to sacrifice his own freedom in defense of the freedoms that make it possible for all journalists to hold government officials and institutions accountable,” said Walter V. Robinson, chairman of the New England First Amendment Coalition committee that recommended Risen for the Hamblett award.
Robinson, now a distinguished professor of journalism at Northeastern University, led The Boston Globe Spotlight Team that won the 2003 Pulitzer for public service for exposing the Roman Catholic Church clergy sexual abuse scandal.
The information allegedly provided by Sterling was used in a chapter of Risen’s 2006 book, “State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration,” which told of an unsuccessful scheme, dubbed “Operation Merlin,” to sidetrack Iran’s nuclear program.
The 2-1 decision by the Richmond, Va., appeals court reversed a 2011 ruling by a federal judge who agreed with Risen’s contention that he was shielded by a limited “reporter’s privilege” under the First Amendment.
In an editorial, The Times called the July 21 decision “egregious” and said it “has dealt a major set back to press freedoms.”
“The ruling and the Justice Department’s misplaced zeal in subpoenaing James Risen … carry costs for robust journalism and government accountability that should alarm all Americans,” the newspaper said.
Risen described the nub of his argument in an affidavit filed in connection with the case.
“If I aided the government in its effort to prosecute my confidential source(s) for providing information to me under terms of confidentiality, I would inevitably be compromising my own ability to gather news in the future. I also believe that I would be impeding all other reporters’ ability to gather and report news in the future.”
Ruling against Risen were Chief Judge William Byrd Traxler Jr. and Judge Albert Diaz, appointees of Presidents Bill Clinton and Obama, respectively. Filing a strong dissent was Judge Roger Gregory, a recess appointment by Clinton renominated by George W. Bush.
“The majority exalts the interests of the government while unduly trampling those of the press,” Gregory wrote, “and in doing so, severely impinges on the press and the free flow of information in our society.”
Risen has been with The Times covering national security, intelligence and terrorism issues since 1998. He had prior stints with the Los Angeles Times, the Detroit Free Press and the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette. He received a masters degree from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 1978 and his undergraduate degree from Brown University in 1977. While a student at Brown, Risen was a stringer for The Providence Journal.
He was part of The Times team that won a Pulitzer in 2002 for explanatory reporting for coverage of the Sept.11 attacks and terrorism. He shared the 2006 prize in national reporting with Times reporter Eric Lichtblau for revealing President Bush’s legally questionable domestic wiretapping program.
Risen is the fourth recipient of the Hamblett award, named for the late publisher and chief executive of The Providence Journal. Earlier recipients were retired New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis, who died March 25; Martin Baron, former editor of The Boston Globe and now executive editor of The Washington Post; and Philip Balboni, GlobalPost CEO and co-founder and the architect of cable news channel NECN.
The awards luncheon will be held Feb. 7 in conjunction with the winter conference of the New England Newspaper and Press Association.
NEFAC was formed in 2006 to advance and protect the Five Freedoms of the First Amendment, including the principle of the public’s right to know. We’re a broad-based organization of people who believe in the power of an informed democratic society. Our members include lawyers, journalists, historians, librarians, academics and private citizens. We work in partnership with the Initiative for Investigative Reporting at the Northeastern University School of Journalism.