Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. has decided he will not force a New York Times reporter to reveal his confidential source in a high-profile media case that has pitted the Obama administration against the press for years, according to a person familiar with the decision.
A federal judge had set a Tuesday deadline for the Justice Department to say whether it intended to compel Times reporter James Risen to identify his source in the trial of Jeffrey Sterling, a former CIA official who was accused of leaking classified information. With that deadline approaching, Holder has told prosecutors that, while they may still request a subpoena of Risen, he cannot be required to reveal any information about the identity of his source, according to the person familiar with Holder’s decision, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, which is prosecuting the case, declined to comment, as did a Justice Department spokesman. Edward B. MacMahon, Sterling’s attorney, said he had not been informed of any decisions about Risen, but the revelation, if true, was troubling.
“We’re waiting for the formal responses ordered by the court, but if the result is that the attorney general doesn’t want the issue that his own Department of Justice fought for all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, then three years of Mr. Sterling’s life have been wasted in litigation” MacMahon said.
The Risen case had become a major flashpoint between the Justice Department and press advocates. Over nearly six years, the Obama administration has has prosecuted eight leak cases, more than were pursued under all previous administrations combined.
The possibility that a reporter could have been compelled to divulge a source in a leak case embroiled the Justice Department in a free-press controversy and sparked a prolonged court battle.
Sterling is accused of being a source in Risen’s book, “State of War,” in which the reporter revealed an effort by the CIA to sabotate Iran’s nuclear weapons program.
If prosecutors subpoena Risen, it would only be to confirm information: such as he wrote the book, he reported information from a confidential source and he had an agreement not to reveal the source, said the person familiar with the matter.
Matt Zapotosky contributed to this report.