The U.S. State Department held its third annual Free the Press campaign this past week to highlight “censorship and oppression” of journalists around the world. However, Matthew Lee of the Associated Press decided to nail one of the speakers, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki, on the Obama administration’s harassment and suppression of journalists and whistle-blowers in America.
Lee asked question after question, particularly about the case of James Risen, who in 2006 published a book entitled, State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration. The Justice Department searched Risen’s phone, credit card, and bank records to compile a case against a former CIA agent Jeffrey Sterling, charged under the Espionage Act, for allegedly leaking a key part of the story for Risen’s book. The Obama Justice Department asked Risen to testify about his business with Sterling; Risen refused based on reporter’s privilege. The Department of Justice has recently formally asked the U.S. Supreme Court not to hear Risen’s appeal of the previous Appeals Court decision, which appeal, if successful, would recognize Risen’s right–and thus the right of reporters in general–to reporter’s privilege under the U.S. Constitution. The DOJ argues such a right does not apply in this case (see slug, April 27 briefing).
AP reporter Lee asked State Department spokeswoman Psaki whether her pledge against harassment of reporters applies to U.S. reporters: “Does that include those who may have been targeted, harassed, imprisoned, or otherwise, whatever, by the United States?” Psaki evaded the question. Lee drove relentlessly forward, and asked whether the Obama administration regards “attempting to prosecute American journalists as an infringement of press freedom?” Psaki again gave a meaningless answer. Lee then said he was referring specifically to the Risen case, and asked, “So is it correct, then, that you don’t believe–you don’t regard [the Risen case] as an infringement of freedom of the press.” A nervous but cornered Psaki said, “We don’t.”
The Obama administration is the first ever to prosecute a reporter under the 1917 Espionage Act.