The U.S. Supreme Court has refused to hear the appeal of James Risen, a New York Times reporter who could go to jail for refusing to identify a confidential source. The high court thus tacitly affirmed the chilling opinion of an appeals court that “there is no First Amendment testimonial privilege, absolute or qualified, that protects a reporter from being compelled to” give up a source who was promised anonymity.
Mr. Risen’s case is the latest in a barrage of attacks by President Obama’s administration on press freedom, and an unconscionable blow to the national security reporting that is so vital for government accountability.
Since the publication in 2006 of his book detailing a CIA operation to provide flawed nuclear blueprints to Iran, Mr. Risen has been hounded by federal subpoenas seeking his testimony against the alleged informant, Jeffrey Sterling. The most recent subpoena, approved by Attorney General Eric Holder, was quashed in district court. The presiding judge rightly noted: “A criminal trial subpoena is not a free pass for the government to rifle through a reporter’s notebook.”
The Supreme Court’s controlling opinion on a qualified reporter privilege is cryptic, but appeals courts have historically maintained a broad interpretation of the opinion that protects reporters. Now that appeals courts are in conflict, though, the high court should not have evaded its duty to set a clear precedent.
More troubling are the policies of Mr. Obama, who campaigned on creating “an unprecedented level of openness in the government.” His administration has instead created an unprecedented level of opacity and hostility toward the press.
Rather than adhere to his campaign pledge to strengthen federal whistleblower laws, Mr. Obama has aggressively pursued leak investigations. His administration has charged more people under the Espionage Act than all previous administrations combined.
And far from expanding openness, the Obama presidency has instead flouted basic journalistic expectations. It has barred independent photojournalists from White House events, secretly seized telephone records from the Associated Press, and argued that an investigative reporter might be criminally liable for publishing classified material.
Such actions compromise the effectiveness of national security reporting, which relies principally on confidential sources to ferret out mistakes and deceit that would otherwise go unnoticed. Good journalism is democracy’s safety valve — what good is a vote if you don’t know what you’re voting for?
Mr. Holder has hinted that his Justice Department might not seek to jail Mr. Risen for contempt if he refuses to testify. It shouldn’t.
Mr. Obama has just two years left in his presidency. Rather than attacking journalists for doing their jobs, he should try, belatedly, to restore accountability and transparency to his administration.