The Curious Case of the CIA Whistleblower

Every so often reports surface about the Justice Department’s prosecution of CIA whistleblower Jeffrey Sterling–often due to the government’s attempts to convince New York Times reporter James Risen to testify about his interactions with Sterling. The Times reported on the latest such efforts yesterday (5/25/11):

Federal prosecutors are trying to force the author of a book on the CIA to testify at a criminal trial about who leaked information to him about the agency’s effort to sabotage the Iranian nuclear program at the end of the Clinton administration.

Such efforts to get journalists to testify often lead media outlets to champion their First Amendment rights and the necessity of protecting valuable sources (though, as in the case of Judith Miller, the arguments are sometimes rather unconvincing).

The story Risen told–which the government thinks came from Sterling–is pretty fascinating. As the Times summed it up:

The chapter details an effort by the CIA in 2000 to disrupt Iran’s nuclear program by sending a former Russian scientist to give it blueprints for a nuclear triggering device with a hidden design flaw. Mr. Risen portrayed the operation as botched, saying the agency may have helped Iranian scientists gain valuable and accurate information.

Now that sounds pretty damn newsworthy, right? Well, you didn’t read about it in the New York Times:

The material in that chapter did not appear in the New York Times. Mr. Sterling’s indictment said that Mr. Risen had worked on an article about the program in 2003, but that the newspaper decided not to publish it after government officials told editors that such a disclosure would jeopardize national security.

I guess it would be a little awkward for the Times to spend much time championing Risen’s cause. “We must defend our reporters’ need to protect their sources for the sake of a story we didn’t publish because the government told us not to” is hardly a stirring defense of journalistic freedom.

About Peter Hart

Activism Director and and Co-producer of CounterSpinPeter Hart is the activism director at FAIR. He writes for FAIR's magazine Extra! and is also a co-host and producer of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin. He is the author of The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly (Seven Stories Press, 2003). Hart has been interviewed by a number of media outlets, including NBC Nightly News, Fox News Channel's O'Reilly Factor, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and the Associated Press. He has also appeared on Showtime and in the movie Outfoxed. Follow Peter on Twitter at @peterfhart.