ARUN RATH, HOST:
Freedom of the press is considered an essential ideal of American democracy. President Obama acknowledged as much last month when he draped a Presidential Medal of Freedom around the neck of former Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: With Ben in charge, The Post published the Pentagon Papers, revealing the true history of America's involvement in Vietnam, exposed Watergate, unleashed a new era of investigative journalism, holding America's leaders accountable and reminding us that our freedom as a nation rests on our freedom of the press.
RATH: Today's investigative journalists may not be feeling the love. I asked New York Times reporter James Risen, in terms of openness or transparency attitudes toward the press, how would you rank the Obama administration?
JAMES RISEN: I think it's the worst. I think it's worse than the Bush administration, which I never thought I would say.
RATH: Risen has found himself at the center of a modern fight over what freedom of the press means. And that's our cover story today: just how much does the First Amendment shield reporters from the law?
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RATH: James Risen is most famous for revealing the NSA's wiretapping program in 2005. The next year, his book, "State of War," was released. It contained a chapter about a bungled CIA operation. An effort to sabotage the Iranian nuclear program by supplying them with faulty blueprints failed when a sketchy middleman revealed the flaws to the Iranians, a dramatic and embarrassing story, one that would never have been told had it not been for Risen's unnamed source.
The Bush administration investigated a former CIA officer named Jeffrey Sterling, and in 2008, Risen was subpoenaed to testify against him. Risen refused with a classic argument. He had a First Amendment right as a reporter to protect his source. The incoming Obama administration not only continued to pursue the subpoena, they doubled-down on their efforts to compel James Risen to testify.
RISEN: They've taken the whole legal approach on this issue to a new level. The Bush administration, you know, really talked a lot about these issues, but the Obama people have actually done, you know, a lot more aggressive investigations and prosecutions, and I think they've made things much worse.
RATH: Have they been invasive in terms of trying to find out information about your reporting and your sources?
RISEN: Yeah. I mean, they have - it's come out in the case that they got access to a number of travel records, credit card records, credit reports. And I know that witnesses who had to testify before the grand jury have subsequently told me that prosecutors showed them copies of phone logs of calls between the two of us. It's never been clear to me how they were getting those phone logs.
RATH: Judith Miller, a former colleague of yours from The New York Times, when she was willing to brave jail to protect a source, it got a ton of attention, even before she actually went to prison. And I have had to search for details about your case. What do you make of if you agree that there's a lack of attention this time around?
RISEN: Maybe we're all getting used to a new era of tighter security and, you know, the post-9/11 world perhaps. I don't know the answer to that. That's a good question. But I don't think there's a big public constituency for the press. People don't really care about our problems too much, which I can't blame them about really.
RATH: Can you explain to people - I mean, especially people that aren't journalists and aren't part of this world - why this is worth going to jail over for you?
RISEN: This is about the First Amendment. It's really no longer just a specific case. One of the things that surprised me about the way the government has approached this case was the Obama administration in their appeal laid out a very basic fundamental and constitutional issue. They don't believe there is any reporter's privilege in a criminal case. And the fact that the Fourth Circuit three-judge panel essentially accepted that view makes this a very fundamental constitutional issue.
Does the First Amendment provide sufficient protection under the law to journalists to do their job? Because if there is no such thing as a reporter's privilege, then confidential sources in American journalism will all be at risk. Oversight, accountability journalism throughout the United States will be at risk. And so I think this is a very fundamental issue that I'm willing to fight for.
RATH: That's New York Times reporter James Risen.
RODNEY SMOLLA: Well, I respect Mr. Risen's convictions, but essentially he's engaging in an act of civil disobedience.
RATH: Rodney Smolla is a First Amendment scholar and a visiting professor at the Duke University School of Law.
SMOLLA: Although First Amendment values are enormously important to our society, there are other values that are also important. And one of the most fundamental notions in a system that believes in the rule of law is that courts are entitled to every person's evidence. When a journalist accepts material from someone who the journalist knows is breaking the law in handing the journalist that material, the journalist is on the one hand engaged in the altruistic and important function of news gathering, but he or she is also watching a crime in progress.
And the traditional notion in this country is that no one is above the law. And even though we have many situations in which we protect confidentiality, at times that must give way. And so as much as I respect Mr. Risen's integrity in wanting to protect his source, the fact remains that there's a very strong argument. And I think it was established in 1972 that there is no First Amendment rule that protects a journalist from being forced to testify when he or she has evidence of a crime.
RATH: In the 1972 case, Smolla referred to, Branzburg v. Hayes, the Supreme Court ruled a reporter did not have a right to refuse a subpoena in a criminal case. Over the years, media lawyers have found enough gray area in one justice's opinion to argue that in some cases, reporters could refuse. But today, the consensus is no. Reporters like James Risen do not have a First Amendment right to protect their sources, not at the federal level, at least.
LUCY DALGLISH: Now, ironically, if he were involved in a state court tussle with the government, there would be a much greater probability that he could protect a confidential source.
RATH: Lucy Dalglish is the dean of the journalism school at the University of Maryland. She says that while a majority of states have some kind of law to shield reporters, there's nothing at the federal level.
DALGLISH: We've been battling for years trying to get Congress to pass a shield law. And so far, we've not been successful.
RATH: But Dalglish says federal subpoenas for reporters have actually declined recently, but not for reasons investigative reporters would celebrate.
DALGLISH: I've had people in the government tell me they can grab your credit cards, they can monitor your phones. You know, this is one of the last subpoenas you're ever going to see because we don't need you people anymore. We know who you're talking to.
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RATH: The Department of Justice, in a statement to NPR, said they believe, quote, "that leaks of classified information damage our national security and must be investigated using appropriate law enforcement tools," but that they are, quote, "committed to making sure we strike the right balance in protecting the First Amendment and protecting information vital to our national security."
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RATH: As for James Risen, his lawyers say they plan to file with the Supreme Court next month. If that fails, he says he'll go to jail rather than reveal his sources.