The Justice Department’s Obsession with New York Times’ Risen

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President Obama’s Justice Department really has it out for the New York Times’ James Risen.

The Justice Department May 23 subpoenaed Risen – a second time – to testify about his alleged involvement in disclosing an apparently botched 11-year-old CIA program designed to disrupt Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The department wants Risen to testify in the government’s case against former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling for allegedly leaking classified information about the CIA program to Risen, who wrote about the program in a 2006 book.

The government previously subpoenaed Risen last year after he refused to testify during the grand jury phase of the government’s case against Sterling. Risen could have gone to jail for that, but judge Leonie Brinkema quashed the government’s subpoena last November. The department is trying for another bite at the apple now that Sterling’s case is going to trail, and Risen will have to fight to stay out of jail all over again.

Other revelations in the Sterling case make you wonder what the Justice Department has against the Pulitzer Prize-winning Risen. Early this year it became clear that federal law-enforcement officials had snatched Risen’s credit reports, credit-card and bank statements, and airline-travel itineraries. That alarmed free speech advocates who pointed out that information was not gathered from investigating Sterling.

What’s stranger still is that the government has its knickers in a twist over pretty old news. The case against Sterling is about allegedly leaking information to Risen about a CIA program back in 2000 to give the Iranians flawed nuclear bomb blueprints in the hopes that the Iranians wouldn’t notice the fatal mistakes and build a faulty bomb.

Risen included that information in his 2006 book “State of War: the Hidden History of the C.I.A. and the Bush Administration.” According to Risen’s book, the Iranians did notice the flaws in the blueprints – but they also seized on some of the valuable bomb design information the CIA had just handed them.

In addition to the apparent fixation on Risen, the subpoena also highlights a strange eccentricity of the Obama Administration: the obsession with alleged government leakers – and in this case, the possible recipient of leaked information. The Obama Administration has pressed charges against five defendants suspected of leaking classified information. Previous administrations have pursued similar charges only three times in the last 40 years. (The most well-known is the prosecution of Daniel Ellsberg for leaking the Pentagon papers to the New York Times.)

Abbe Lowell, an attorney representing a defendant currently in the Justice Department’s crosshairs, says the pursuit of leakers is an easy way for the administration to look tough on national security issues. “Going after leaks of classified information is low-handing fruit,” Lowell explained. “You can show you are tough and here is very little push back,” he said. “Other than the media, there is no constituency.”