At the Sterling trial

Last week the government commenced its prosecution of former CIA official Jeffrey Sterling for violation of the Espionage Act. The government alleges that Sterling leaked the details of a program intended to undermine Iran’s nuclear program to New York Times reporter James Risen. The program was subject to a security classification indicating its extreme sensitivity.

Sterling did not publicly disclose the details of the CIA program; he laundered them through Risen (with a promise from Risen to protect Sterling’s identity as the source). So the government alleges.

The government subpoenaed Risen to testify in the case. Risen declined, and the government has abandoned its efforts to compel him to testify. He works for the Times, and the Times is, after all, on Obama’s team. The case therefore continues without the benefit of Risen’s testimony.

It should be noted that the Times itself took a pass on the Sterling/Risen story regarding this CIA effort to undermine Iran’s nuclear program. To no discernible public good, Risen publicized the program in his book State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration.

If Sterling violated the Espionage Act, as the government alleges, it is even clearer that Risen did so too. He is subject to the same criminal liability as Sterling and other citizens for violation of the Espionage Act, but the government has confined the prosecution to Sterling and now it has also abandoned its claim to Risen’s testimony.

Lacking the exalted status of a New York Times reporter, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice appeared at trial to testify in the government’s case this past Thursday. Secretary Rice described how the White House successfully persuaded Times editors not to publish an article (I think it must have been by Risen) about the secret operation to disrupt Iran’s nuclear program.

According to Matt Apuzzo’s report in the Times, the government prosecutors introduced Rice’s testimony to bolster their case that the leak to Risen had harmed national security; harm to national security is a predicate to criminal liability under the Espionage Act.

Circumstantial evidence suggests that Sterling was Risen’s source for the story. Apuzzo notes that phone records and emails show that Sterling and Risen were in contact.

Apuzzo’s article adds a bizarre twist. Apuzzo draws on Rice’s testimony to illustrate “how the government pressures journalists to avoid publishing details about United States security affairs. It is a common practice that is seldom discussed.”

How does the government pressure journalists? When it learns that the Times or other media outfits are about to publish critical national security information, it seeks to persuade reporters and editors to withhold the information by explaining to them the harm that public disclosure would do. Occasionally it even succeeds in persuading them to withhold the information in the public interest, as the Times did in this case.

Shocking but true.

NOTE: For a full understanding of what Risen has wrought here I urge interested readers to read Gabriel Schoenfeld’s Weekly Standard articles “Not every leak is fit to print” (2008), “What gives?” (2010), and “A privileged press?” (2014) as well as Schoenfeld’s Power Line post “A Risen in the sun.” This is a most serious matter.


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