Should journalists care if sources go off to prison?

ASK YOURSELF THIS QUESTION: Is it sufficient to protect journalists who report classified information while sources go off to prison?

During the last half decade, a growing roster of national-security reporters has withstood government pressure to reveal confidential sources. They’ve done so with the steady support of news organizations and well-heeled groups that work to protect journalists from threats of jail. Yet those media outfits show scant interest in advocating for the whistleblowers who put themselves at risk. If they go to prison, c’est la vie.

The intertwined cases of New York Times reporter James Risen and former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling point up the contrast. Risen got broad and repeated support from the media establishment; Sterling got none.

After seven years of government harassment and threats that began in early 2008, Risen prevailed with his steadfast refusal to identify any confidential source for his book State of War. But a year ago, a jury in CIA-friendly Northern Virginia convicted Sterling on multiple counts of the Espionage Act, accepting the prosecution’s claim that he had provided Risen with classified information for a chapter in the book, which included details about a botched CIA operation that provided faulty nuclear weapons design information to Iran.

Just after the verdict, the executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press told The New York Times: “The speed with which the jury reached its verdict shows that reporter’s testimony was not needed for the government to make its case. I think going forward this is going to be a powerful precedent.” Such comments were echoed in celebratory fashion by then-Attorney General Eric Holder and others eager to drive a bigger wedge between journalists and whistleblowers.

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