James Risen: Government Was Prying Into My Private Phone Records

Times reporter says 2006 blotter report about feds tracking calls was accurate.

ByABC News
June 21, 2011, 5:24 PM

June 22, 2011 — -- Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist James Risen, who is fighting the government's attempt to force him to reveal his sources about CIA efforts to sabotage Iran's nuke program, says a subpoena ordering him to testify is the latest salvo in a campaign of government harassment that began under the Bush administration.

In a 22-page affidavit filed Tuesday, the New York Times reporter says the campaign of harassment apparently included tracking his ingoing and outgoing phone calls to "root out [my] confidential sources," a practice first reported by Brian Ross and Richard Esposito for ABC News in 2006.

"I have reason to believe that the story by Brian Ross and Richard Esposito is true," writes Risen. "I have learned from an individual who testified before a grand jury . . . that the Government had shown this individual copies of telephone records relating to calls made to and from me."

In 2006, Ross and Esposito reported that a senior law enforcement official had told them, "It's time for you to get some new cell phones," because phone calls of reporters at ABC News, the New York Times and the Washington Post were being tracked as part of a "widespread" CIA leak investigation."I was mentioned by name as one of the reporters whose work the government was looking into," writes Risen.

READ the original ABC News report.

Risen submitted Tuesday's affidavit, which lists several examples of alleged harassment and intimidation, as part of a motion to kill a subpoena ordering him to testify at the trial of former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling. Sterling has been indicted on 10 counts, including allegedly disclosing the information about Iran's nuclear program to Risen.

Risen has fought two previous attempts to compel him to testify against Sterling; the first subpoena was issued during the Bush administration. "This is a fight to defend the First Amendment and freedom of the press," Risen told ABC News, before referring ABC News to his attorney. Sources close to Risen say he is determined never to give up his sources even if that means going to jail.

Sterling, an ex-CIA operative, was indicted in December 2010 for allegedly giving Risen information about the CIA's attempt to use a Russian scientist to feed Iran faulty blueprints for a nuclear trigger device. The information about the operation, which Risen characterized as unsuccessful, ultimately appeared in his 2006 book "State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration." It never appeared in the New York Times. An attorney for Sterling told ABC News that his client was innocent of the charges against him and would prove so in court. Sterling's trial is set to begin in September.

In his affidavit, Risen says that the Bush administration was "embarrassed" by what he disclosed in reports for the New York Times and in "State of War" about U.S. intelligence failures, warrantless wiretaps and domestic eavesdropping. "The Bush administration," claims Risen, "eventually singled me out as a target for political harassment." Risen said the Bush administration threatened to prosecute him under the Espionage Act and that a reliable source told him Vice President Dick Cheney pressured the Justice Department to "personally target me because he was unhappy with my reporting and wanted to see me in jail." He said he also received hate mail from pressure groups with White House ties and was picketed at his office by protestors who demanded his arrest.

After the publication of Risen's book, then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales publicly raised the possibility of prosecuting journalists for leaks, and told George Stephanopoulos of ABC News on "This Week" that prosecuting reporters was a "possibility." A Justice Department official then told the Senate, when asked, that the Justice Department had never previously prosecuted a journalist under the Espionage Act.

Risen argues in the affidavit that his reporting on Iran has served the public interest, because it may help keep the government from repeating its mistakes. "I believe I performed a vitally important public service by exposing the reckless and badly mismanaged nature of intelligence on Iran's efforts to obtain weapons of mass destruction, so that the national would not go to war once again based on flawed intelligence, as it had in Iraq."

The four other accused leakers prosecuted by the Obama administration include National Security Agency employee Thomas Drake, charged with talking to the Baltimore Sun about electronic surveillance and wiretapping; Bradley Manning, the Army private and alleged Wikileaker of hundreds of thousands of U.S. military and State Department documents; Stephen Jin-Woo Kim, indicted for allegedly disclosing national defense information to an unnamed news organization and then lying about it; and Shamai Liebowitz, a Hebrew linguist and FBI contractor who was sentenced to 20 months in federal prison for leaking secret documents to an unnamed blogger in April 2009.

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