Justice Dept. Vows No Jail for Reporters Doing Their Jobs

Professional and personal life under the threat of jail for 16 subsequent months is best captured in a note I wrote to myself at the time: “I've felt like throwing up all day so far … Just that 'racing heart' feeling throughout."

Still, I felt I had to protect my confidential sources.

In a letter to the Justice Department on Nov. 30, 2011 – after a tense back-and-forth spanning nearly a year – an attorney representing me, Jay Darden of Patton Boggs in Washington, reiterated that I was “unable to violate [my] professional obligations,” adding, “We continue to urge the Department to pursue a less confrontational course that will not have the effect of undermining one of the core pillars of a free press.”

Indeed, after several months of silence, a prosecutor from the Justice Department’s Public Integrity Section called my attorney April 2, 2012, to say they were withdrawing the subpoena. No explanation given.

On Wednesday, however, Deputy Attorney General Cole might have offered a clue.

Checking to make sure I heard him correctly the first time, I asked Cole, “So it has been the policy to not jail [a reporter] from the beginning?”

Again, he said simply, “Yes.”

“So then why issue subpoenas to reporters?” I asked. “What’s the point of it if there’s no intent to follow through to the end?”

Cole answered: “Just because you issue a subpoena doesn’t mean you’re jailing anybody. Sometimes people provide information, so it’s the legal process and we go through the legal process.”

Nevertheless, when asked by a New York Times reporter whether “protecting a source [is] part of a journalist’s job,” Cole declined to answer.

As for Risen, his attorney, Joel Kurtzberg of Cahill Gordon & Reindel in New York, said Risen is prepared to go to jail if it comes to that.

“He will keep his promise to his source, regardless of the consequences,” Kurtzberg said.

Asked whether reporters could still face fines – rather than jail – for doing their jobs while Holder is attorney general, a Justice Department spokesman declined to answer.

The Supreme Court was meeting today to discuss whether to take up Risen’s case, and a decision could be announced as early as Monday.

ABC News’ Ariane DeVogue contributed to this report.

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