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Former NSA Chief Hayden Questions Prosecution of New York Times Reporter

New York Times reporter James Risen has become one of the most prominent examples of the Obama administration’s crackdown on national security leaks, but in an interview with CBS that aired Sunday Michael Hayden, the former director of the National Security Agency, says that he’s "conflicted" about Risen’s prosecution. "I don’t understand the necessity to ...

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

New York Times reporter James Risen has become one of the most prominent examples of the Obama administration’s crackdown on national security leaks, but in an interview with CBS that aired Sunday Michael Hayden, the former director of the National Security Agency, says that he’s "conflicted" about Risen’s prosecution.

"I don’t understand the necessity to pursue Jim," Hayden told CBS’s Lesley Stahl. "I know the damage that it’s done. I do, but I also know the free press necessity in a free society."

Federal prosecutors have been pressing Risen to reveal his source for information about a botched U.S. operation to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program. That source is alleged to be former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling, who is currently being prosecuted for leaking classified information.

The information in question deals with an attempt during the Clinton administration to provide Iran with fake blueprints for a nuclear trigger. That effort — dubbed Operation Merlin — failed, and Risen, who was one of the reporters who broke the news of the George W. Bush administration’s warrantless wiretapping program, exposed the operation’s failure in his 2006 book State of War. In the book, he describes the operation as reckless and argues that it may have ended up benefitting Tehran.

After being pressed by the U.S. government not to publish the information, Risen went ahead anyway. "I believed that the government was trying to cover up an embarrassment and that it was not for national security reasons," Risen told CBS.

Risen has refused to cooperate with prosecutors in their investigation of Sterling and has said he will go to jail rather than reveal his source for the book. In June, Risen was ordered to testify by a federal Appeals Court, following the Supreme Court’s refusal to hear his case. The Obama administration is now considering whether to abandon its pursuit of Risen under new guidelines issued by the Justice Department for subpoenaing journalists and their records.

Hayden’s comments about Risen’s case make him one of the most senior intelligence officials to question the wisdom of prosecuting the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter. "I am, like America, conflicted," Hayden said in the CBS interview. "You’re talking about ruining lives over things about which people are acting on principle."

It’s unlikely Hayden’s statements will have any practical impact on the case, but they may provide some political cover for the Obama administration if it wishes to jettison the case against Risen. Hayden told CBS that he believes Risen’s reporting harmed American interests but questioned the wisdom of redressing that offense in a way that "harms the broad freedom of the press."

"The government needs to be strong enough to keep me safe but I don’t want it so strong that it threatens my liberties."

Hayden also acknowledged that the warrantless wiretapping program exposed by Risen in 2005 were beset by legal problems. "I knew we were playing up against the line," he said, referring to the warrantless wiretapping program.

That revelation has an interesting publishing history of its own. The New York Times at first refused to publish the story after the White House convinced top editors at the paper that revealing the program’s existence would harm national security. It was only after Risen threatened to publish the material in his book that his editors at the Times gave in to his demands to publish the story, which he co-wrote with reporter Eric Lichtblau.

In Sunday’s program, Jill Abramson, who was the paper’s Washington bureau chief at the time and is a former Times executive editor, acknowledged that the paper published the story, in part, because they were strong-armed by Risen. "In some way he forced our hand; sure he did," Abramson said.     

New York Times reporter James Risen has become one of the most prominent examples of the Obama administration’s crackdown on national security leaks, but in an interview with CBS that aired Sunday Michael Hayden, the former director of the National Security Agency, says that he’s "conflicted" about Risen’s prosecution.

"I don’t understand the necessity to pursue Jim," Hayden told CBS’s Lesley Stahl. "I know the damage that it’s done. I do, but I also know the free press necessity in a free society."

Federal prosecutors have been pressing Risen to reveal his source for information about a botched U.S. operation to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program. That source is alleged to be former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling, who is currently being prosecuted for leaking classified information.

The information in question deals with an attempt during the Clinton administration to provide Iran with fake blueprints for a nuclear trigger. That effort — dubbed Operation Merlin — failed, and Risen, who was one of the reporters who broke the news of the George W. Bush administration’s warrantless wiretapping program, exposed the operation’s failure in his 2006 book State of War. In the book, he describes the operation as reckless and argues that it may have ended up benefitting Tehran.

After being pressed by the U.S. government not to publish the information, Risen went ahead anyway. "I believed that the government was trying to cover up an embarrassment and that it was not for national security reasons," Risen told CBS.

Risen has refused to cooperate with prosecutors in their investigation of Sterling and has said he will go to jail rather than reveal his source for the book. In June, Risen was ordered to testify by a federal Appeals Court, following the Supreme Court’s refusal to hear his case. The Obama administration is now considering whether to abandon its pursuit of Risen under new guidelines issued by the Justice Department for subpoenaing journalists and their records.

Hayden’s comments about Risen’s case make him one of the most senior intelligence officials to question the wisdom of prosecuting the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter. "I am, like America, conflicted," Hayden said in the CBS interview. "You’re talking about ruining lives over things about which people are acting on principle."

It’s unlikely Hayden’s statements will have any practical impact on the case, but they may provide some political cover for the Obama administration if it wishes to jettison the case against Risen. Hayden told CBS that he believes Risen’s reporting harmed American interests but questioned the wisdom of redressing that offense in a way that "harms the broad freedom of the press."

"The government needs to be strong enough to keep me safe but I don’t want it so strong that it threatens my liberties."

Hayden also acknowledged that the warrantless wiretapping program exposed by Risen in 2005 were beset by legal problems. "I knew we were playing up against the line," he said, referring to the warrantless wiretapping program.

That revelation has an interesting publishing history of its own. The New York Times at first refused to publish the story after the White House convinced top editors at the paper that revealing the program’s existence would harm national security. It was only after Risen threatened to publish the material in his book that his editors at the Times gave in to his demands to publish the story, which he co-wrote with reporter Eric Lichtblau.

In Sunday’s program, Jill Abramson, who was the paper’s Washington bureau chief at the time and is a former Times executive editor, acknowledged that the paper published the story, in part, because they were strong-armed by Risen. "In some way he forced our hand; sure he did," Abramson said.     

 Twitter: @EliasGroll

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