Justices deny appeal over reporter's sources

Justices deny appeal over reporter's sources
CNN
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Monday, June 2, 2014 - 6:49pm

(CNN) -- The Supreme Court on Monday denied the appeal of a New York Times journalist who has refused to testify about anonymous sources in a federal leak investigation.

The justices refused to intervene in the case alleging that James Risen used classified information about efforts to stop Iran from developing a nuclear weapon in his 2006 book, "State of War."

Last year, a federal court ruled that he would have to testify in the trial of a former CIA officer, Jeffrey Alexander Sterling, who faces criminal charges in the matter.

Risen appealed and lost before asking the Supreme Court to weigh in. The justices issued their ruling without comment.

He faces the possibility of fines or jail if his testimony is sought again and he refuses to comply.

"The ball is now in the government's court," said Risen's attorney, Joel Kurtzberg. "The government can choose not to pursue Mr. Risen's testimony if it wants to.

"We can only hope now that the government will not seek to have him held in contempt for doing nothing more than reporting the news and keeping his promises," Kurtzberg said.

Controversy over the Obama administration's aggressive pursuit of information from journalists in national security leak cases involving The Associated Press and Fox News made headlines last year.

Attorney General Eric Holder met with media executives and later changed agency policy on when prosecutors can seek records or other information from journalists in leak investigations.

For instance, the Justice Department can no longer pursue journalists in these matters unless a reporter is the subject of a criminal investigation for conduct unrelated to news gathering.

The Supreme Court decision and what it may mean for Risen is troubling, said the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

"We are extremely disappointed that the Supreme Court declined this opportunity to uphold journalists' ability to protect confidential sources, which is an essential tool utilized by a free press in newsgathering for the public trust," the group said. "The lower court's ruling sends an undeniable chill through current and future news sources who would want to come forward with information essential to the well-being of the community and the country."

It had organized a letter sent the to Justice Department that was signed by 46 news organizations, including CNN,

Reporters have pushed for a federal shield law for the press, and clear guidelines from the government.

The federal appeals court panel that ruled against Risen said the First Amendment does not provide a shield from testimony about leaks of classified information.

"Indeed, he can provide the only first-hand account of the commission of a most serious crime indicted by the grand jury -- the illegal disclosure of classified, national security information by one who was entrusted by our government to protect national security, but who is charged with having endangered it instead," said the appeals court's majority. "The subpoena for Risen's testimony was not issued in bad faith or for the purposes of harassment."

The indictment against Sterling was unsealed in January 2011. It included Espionage Act charges that he revealed national defense information. His case has not gone to trial and has been delayed while both sides waited for the pending appeal at the high court.

Sterling, who is African American, resigned from the CIA in January 2002 and filed a suit against the agency, alleging racial discrimination. He had previously filed an administrative complaint that the CIA had not given him certain assignments due to his race.

The complaint and the suit were both later dismissed.

Prosecutors allege that Sterling leaked information to a reporter because he was unhappy about his treatment at the CIA.

The case is Risen v. U.S. (13-1009).

-- CNN's Eliott C. McLaughlin contributed to this report.

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