In A Blow To Press Freedom, SCOTUS Rejects Appeal To Protect A Source's Identity

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The right of reporter's privilege is vital to the freedom of the press. The protection that journalists can afford their sources is what allows people to speak anonymously about crime, corruption, and misuse of power without fear of reprisals.

On Monday, however, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected an appeal from James Risen, a New York Times reporter who had refused to name one of his sources. A chapter in Risen's 2006 book State of War contained information derived from a confidential source, who prosecutors believe is former CIA official Jeffrey Sterling.

Risen has refused an order by Virginia's United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit to reveal the name of his source for the book. The chapter in question detailed the plans for Operation Merlin, an alleged Clinton-era covert op to provide Iran with flawed nuclear warhead blueprints in an effort to delay Iran's nuclear development program. Risen suggests, however, that the plan backfired and gave Iran enough groundwork to accelerate its current program.

In a brief to the court, the Obama administration wrote that "reporters have no privilege to refuse to provide direct evidence of criminal wrongdoing by confidential sources." But, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. suggested last week that the Justice Department might not seek to jail Risen if he refuses to testify.

While a Federal District Court judge declared in 2011 that Risen was protected by a limited reporter's privilege, an appeals court ruled last year that that such privilege does not exist. That ruling established a precedent that is limited to only the Fourth Circuit — but that includes Maryland and Virginia, where the Pentagon and CIA are centered, which could make reporting on national security matters even trickier down the road. (NYT )