Notice, Undercover Reporting

New York Times: “For James Risen, A Struggle That Never Ends,” by Margaret Sullivan, Public Editor

October 13, 2014


The New York Times

October 13, 2014

For James Risen, a Struggle That Never Ends

Readers of this blog may know that I’m particularly interested in the situation involving James Risen, a Times investigative reporter who is at risk of going to jail to protect a confidential source from his 2006 book, “State of War.”

What’s happened to Mr. Risen is one of the two most telling journalism episodes of the past decade or so, the other being the Edward Snowden leak.  They share common themes, of course: the growth of post-9/11 government surveillance in America and the role of the National Security Agency in spying on American citizens, among others. (I interviewed Mr. Risen at his home in suburban Maryland last year about his and fellow Times reporter, Eric Lichtblau’s, extraordinary warrantless-wiretapping story that was delayed for 13 months, finally appearing in 2005; it won a Pulitzer Prize.)

There have been some developments in the Risen story — and some fascinating coverage. I’ll summarize them here and comment only to say that I admire Mr. Risen’s toughness and a great deal of his work.

1.  Thomas E. Ricks, in Monday’s Times, gives a generally favorable review to Mr. Risen’s new book, “Pay Any Price: Greed, Power and Endless War.”  Although he says Mr. Risen sometimes overreaches and criticizes him for some undercover reporting in which the reporter portrayed himself as an investor, Mr. Ricks also says that “his core message resonates.”  The message is that “America has lost much in its lashing out against terrorism, and that Congress and the people need to wake up and ask more questions about the political, financial and moral and cultural costs of that campaign.”

The Times has not written anything on its news pages about Mr. Risen’s case recently, but it did publish a story with Mr. Risen’s byline this past weekend about an investigation of missing Iraqi cash; it is an excerpt from the book.  (The degree to which a reporter must identify himself is a subject I’ve covered, as have others. Brooke Kroeger, an author and professor of journalism at NYU, has explored this in considerably more depth.  Times editors have told me that the excerpt they used from Mr. Risen’s book is not one that involves this concern.)

2.  CBS’s “Sixty Minutes” ran a comprehensive story on Mr. Risen’s legal situation over the weekend. It included an interview with Michael Hayden, the former N.S.A. director in which he said he thought the government was overdoing its pursuit of Mr. Risen. “Frankly,” he told the interviewer, Lesley Stahl, “I don’t understand the necessity to pursue Jim.” The transcript, which includes comments from former executive editors Bill Keller and Jill Abramson, is worth reading.

3.  Norman Solomon and Marcy Wheeler wrote a thoughtful piece in The Nation last week, in which they identified “deep patterns of government retaliation against recalcitrant journalists and whistle-blowers” in recent months and years.

4.  And the Washington Post also reported last week that another legal showdown for Mr. Risen is in the offing. Matt Zapotosky wrote that “Federal prosecutors hinted Friday that they still intend to subpoena a New York Times reporter to testify in a case against a former CIA agent — a move that could put them in the position of advocating for penalties against a journalist for doing his job.”

That is something that outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder has suggested, in general terms, that he would not want to see happen. I certainly agree.