Obama’s DOJ vs. the First Amendment

The Obama Justice Department–or at least one of its top prosecutors–is cracking down on investigative reporting without regard for the First Amendment.

The first disturbing development was the indictment of NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake, whose leaks to the Baltimore Sun helped expose how the NSA’s warrantless spying program deliberately failed to protect the privacy of U.S. citizens.

Now the same prosecutor who indicted Drake–William Welch, who stepped down from a prior post as head of the Justice Department’s public integrity unit after botching the prosecution of Sen. Ted Stevens (R.-Alaska)–has opened a new front against freedom of the press. Welch subpoenaed New York Times reporter James Risen to reveal his sources for the account in his book of a CIA operation that may have given Iran important information about how to create a nuclear bomb in the course of trying to infiltrate the Iranian nuclear program. The New York Times reports today (4/29/10):

The Obama administration is seeking to compel a writer to testify about his confidential sources for a 2006 book about the Central Intelligence Agency, a rare step that was authorized by Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.

The author, James Risen, who is a reporter for the New York Times, received a subpoena on Monday requiring him to provide documents and to testify May 4 before a grand jury in Alexandria, Va., about his sources for a chapter of his book, State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration. The chapter largely focuses on problems with a covert CIA effort to disrupt alleged Iranian nuclear weapons research….

The Bush administration had sought Mr. Risen’s cooperation in identifying his sources for the Iran chapter of his book, and it obtained an earlier subpoena against him in January 2008 under Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey. But Mr. Risen fought the subpoena, and never had to testify before it expired last summer. That left it up to Mr. Holder to decide whether to press forward with the matter by seeking a new subpoena.

If a judge does not agree to quash the subpoena and Mr. Risen still refuses to comply, he risks being held in contempt of court.

The Times report alludes to the case of Judith Miller, who was subpoenaed by independent counsel Patrick Fitzgerald to reveal which Bush administration official had revealed that the Valerie Plame, the wife of a prominent Bush critic, was an undercover CIA officer. FAIR encouraged Miller to cooperate with the prosecutor in that case, because no genuine public interest was served in protecting the identity of an official who had used classified information to punish a government critic.

In both the cases pursued by Welch, on the other hand, the targets are legitimate whistleblowers who revealed information that was of vital concern to the public. Risen has announced through his lawyer that he will fight the subpoena in court, and if he gets a judge who respects the First Amendment he should succeed. If Barack Obama and Eric Holder respect the First Amendment, meanwhile, they will rein in these disturbing efforts to squelch journalistic scrutiny of the state.

About Jim Naureckas

Extra! Magazine Editor Since 1990, Jim Naureckas has been the editor of Extra!, FAIR's monthly journal of media criticism. He is the co-author of The Way Things Aren't: Rush Limbaugh's Reign of Error, and co-editor of The FAIR Reader: An Extra! Review of Press and Politics in the '90s. He is also the co-manager of FAIR's website. He has worked as an investigative reporter for the newspaper In These Times, where he covered the Iran-Contra scandal, and was managing editor of the Washington Report on the Hemisphere, a newsletter on Latin America. Jim was born in Libertyville, Illinois, in 1964, and graduated from Stanford University in 1985 with a bachelor's degree in political science. Since 1997 he has been married to Janine Jackson, FAIR's program director. You can follow Jim on Twitter at @JNaureckas.