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Government Ends Threat to Jail James Risen but Danger to Journalists and Whistleblowers Remains

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Norman Solomon
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My guest today is Norman Solomon, Executive Director of the Institute for Public Accuracy. Welcome to OpEdNews, Norman. We're going to talk today about journalist James Risen, the CIA, and the DoJ. Many of our readers are not as up to speed as we might wish. We're hoping that you can rectify that situation. What did James Risen do to raise the ire of the Department of Justice?

For seven years now, the Justice Department has served the Bush and Obama administrations with a series of subpoenas insisting that Risen do what he wisely refuses to do, which is to provide testimony on whether the former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling was a source for a chapter in Risen's 2006 book State of War. The chapter was about a stupid and dangerous CIA operation that provided flawed nuclear weapon blueprints to the Iranian government way back in 2000. In essence, the subpoenas have amounted to protracted and intensive retaliation against Risen's tough reporting on the CIA and other arms of the so-called "national security" state.

Risen has made himself distinctly unpopular in the upper reaches of the CIA and the NSA for most of the 21st century -- because he has covered those agencies with dogged integrity as an investigative journalist. He's one of the few reporters for a large influential U.S. media outlet who is so resolute and unyielding, and he has developed some very good sources. The results have been many stories that infuriated people in high Washington places.

To give you some specific instances of why Risen has earned this hostility from

the top of the warfare/surveillance state, let me quote from an article that investigative journalist Marcy Wheeler and I wrote for The Nation magazine in October:

"Official enmity toward Risen had simmered for years before the Bush administration sent him a subpoena on January 24, 2008. Shortly before the 2004 presidential election, Risen and his colleague Eric Lichtblau put together breakthrough reporting on a warrantless domestic-wiretap program. As it sometimes does with stories deemed sensitive for national security, the [New York] Times notified the government of its intent to publish. But under strong pressure from White House officials -- including some later implicated in the legally suspect program -- Times editors delayed the story's publication for over a year, until December 2005. The coverage won Risen and Lichtblau a Pulitzer Prize for 'carefully sourced stories on secret domestic eavesdropping that stirred a national debate.' It was the kind of debate that the people running the U.S. surveillance state had been desperate to avoid."

And here's another passage from the piece that provides some background in response to your question:

"Under Attorney General Eric Holder, President Obama's Justice Department took up where the Bush DOJ left off. Risen received a second subpoena for grand-jury testimony in late April 2010. As he noted in a mid-2011 affidavit, 'It was my reporting, both in The New York Times and my book State of War, that revealed that the Bush Administration had, in all likelihood, violated the law and the United States Constitution by secretly conducting warrantless domestic wiretapping on American citizens.' At the White House and the Justice Department, he remained unforgiven.

"Anger at Risen also endured at the CIA, where officials have loathed his way of flipping over their rocks. Former head CIA lawyer John Rizzo singles out Risen for condemnation in a memoir this year, writing that inside the agency 'he has had a reputation for being irresponsible and sneaky.' State of War, which depicted the agency's leadership as inept and dangerous, only stoked that antipathy."

Thanks for this, Norman. Very helpful. I can clearly understand how Risen could rub Administration officials, past and current, the wrong way. So, let's see what we've got: Jeffrey Sterling, a CIA insider/whistleblower and Risen, who's painted Bush, Obama, the CIA and our national security apparatus in an uncomplimentary light. Sterling is still behind bars. Washington has spent literally years pursuing Risen. And has anyone paid the price for ill-advised or illegal operations and unwarranted domestic surveillance that has been uncovered over the last few years?

Actually, Sterling isn't behind bars. At the outset, when he was arrested in early January 2011 after indictment, the Justice Department tried to keep him imprisoned -- claiming that he had "underlying selfish and vindictive motivations" and that it was "incomprehensible to believe that [Sterling] will not retaliate in the same deliberate, methodical, vindictive manner." This was a classic official effort to demonize a whistleblower from the outset. In this case, the prosecution was projecting government behavior onto him; after all, the CIA and Justice Department had gone after Sterling in what could be described as a deliberate, methodical, vindictive manner.

The Justice Department told the court that "the cost to national security and the danger posed to lives of certain individuals is simply too high not to require the defendant's detention." To the court's credit, that argument didn't fly, and during four years of pre-trial maneuvers he's been out of jail. But, no surprise, he's had difficulty finding gainful employment.

No one at the CIA has been penalized for lies, torture, summary executions and random killings with drones. But a former CIA analyst and case officer, John Kiriakou, is currently serving a 30-month prison sentence for providing news media with information about the CIA's torture program.

Likewise, at the NSA, top officials have deceived without penalty. Infamously, just three months before Snowden's revelations began in June 2013, the Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, lied to the Senate Intelligence Committee when he denied that the NSA was collecting data on millions of Americans. No penalty for Clapper either.

I've worked with enough whistleblowers over the years to recognize the pattern, Norman. It saddens but does not surprise me. Everything is upside down: the whistleblowers are punished for getting the truth out and the Bad Guys go about their business, lying and worse, with impunity. What can we look forward to with Sterling's trial? And what about Risen?

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Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of (more...)

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