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Holder Won't Force NYT Journalist To Reveal Source

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Nearly nine years ago, New York Times reporter James Risen's book "State Of War" revealed the CIA's failed scheme to feed Iranians bad information for developing their nuclear weapons. Four years since, Mr. Risen has lived under the threat of jail as U.S. authorities in two administrations sought to force him to divulge his confidential source in the story. Now NPR's confirmed that U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has decided against compelling James Risen to reveal that person's identity. NPR's media correspondent David Folkenflik joins us from New York. David, thanks for being with us.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Of course.

SIMON: What was the threat to Jim Risen? How was it lifted?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, Jim Risen was first subpoenaed - actually subpoenaed three times since 2008 - to try to compel him to identify his source. It's now part of the prosecution of a former CIA officer who worked on Iranian issues. That former officer's name - Jeffrey Sterling. Holder had - you know, has been aggressive in trying to pursue the sources of leaks, and there was this standoff between Risen and the attorney general. NBC's Pete Williams last night was the first report. And I was able to confirm from a person directly familiar with Attorney General Holder's thinking that he would no longer have that on the table. He had been given a deadline of Tuesday by a judge to decide whether or not to compel Risen's testimony. Risen, of course, had said he would not do it - would go to jail to protect the name of his source on the story. And that - you know, this source told me that there still could be a subpoena to get Risen to affirm information he's already publicly given in an affidavit several years ago, but that the source of the information would not be a part of that.

SIMON: For journalists, of course - and not just journalists, I'd like to think the people who benefit from journalism, too - this is all about the First Amendment right, which is held dear. Administration officials have argued that national security is pretty dear, too, and that these kinds of disclosures can harm national security.

FOLKENFLIK: Yeah, this is a fundamental collision of values between, you know, government officials and the First Amendment principles that we hold dear in the press and that the public often wants to know about as well. Government officials say that sources are damaged, our programs are damaged, that relations with foreign government are damaged with this disclosure. And let's not forget Jim Risen, one of the reporters who revealed the NSA warrantless wiretapping by the Bush administration in late 2005 just before his book was published. Risen has said publicly he feels that, you know, he embarrassed the government in the Iran case and then the NSA case. He had disclosed information that the government was doing essentially things against the law and possibly unconstitutionally. This was stuff the public needed to know. But you're seeing a total collision of values in the person of Jim Risen in this case.

SIMON: Dysfunctional relationship between the press and the government now?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, it's a point of continuity between the Bush administration and the Obama administration. They hate leaks. They go after them. The Obama Justice Department under Eric Holder has been very aggressive in pursuing reporters to yield information about leaks. But at this moment, toward the very end of his tenure, Attorney General Holder blinked. He didn't want this to be the outcome of this standoff for part of his legacy that he would send Jim Risen to jail.

SIMON: NPR's David Folkenflik in New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.