Risen’s gripping affidavit

Yesterday James Risen, one of The New York Times’s top national security reporters, filed an affidavit in a federal district court explaining why he refuses to comply with a subpoena demanding he give testimony that would identify his source (or sources) for a chapter in his 2006 book State of War.

The chapter at question described a series of intelligence failures in the CIA’s attempts to keep tabs on Iran’s nuclear program. And while that’s the subject of record for this leak investigation, Risen suggests in the filing that that’s not what he thinks kicked off the chain of events that has led to the government’s quest to force him to testify:

“I cannot help but think that the fact that I had written earlier, both in the Times and State of War, about the administration’s legally questionable domestic eavesdropping program, had something to do with the selective attention that was being focused on the Times and me.”

That story, of course, exposed a highly-controversial Bush administration program, won a Pulitzer, and kicked off congressional reforms of the surveillance system.

Risen’s 22-page affidavit is a stirring defense of the value of his reporting, and of the need for journalists covering national security to be able to protect the confidentiality of their sources so that they may bring matters of public interest to light.

Risen describes a very personal manifestation of the public’s interest, writing that after publishing State of War, “people actually stopped me on the street, came up to me in restaurants, or wrote to me to thank me for writing and uncovering the truth.”

Risen presents his decision to publish the information on the Iran intelligence as being in response to the press, and “particularly The New York Times” being “harshly criticized for not doing more independent investigative reporting before the Iraq War” as American sabers rattled at Iran. “I realized that US intelligence on Iran’s supposed weapons of mass destruction was so flawed, and that the information I had was so important, that this was story that the public had to know about before yet another war was launched.”

Risen also reports that he learned from a “reliable source” that Dick Cheney had pressured the Justice department to target him because the vice president, in Risen’s words, “wanted to see me in jail.”

It’s an unusually gripping court filing, very worth reading in full. Steven Aftergood, the Federation of American Scientists secrecy expert, has posted a pdf copy.

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Clint Hendler is the managing editor of Mother Jones, and a former deputy editor of CJR.