WASHINGTON — In a major ruling on press freedoms, a divided federal appeals court on Friday ruled that James Risen, an author and a reporter for The New York Times, must testify in the criminal trial of a former Central Intelligence Agency official charged with providing him with classified information.
In a 118-page set of opinions, two members of a three-judge panel for the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, in Richmond, Va., ruled that the First Amendment does not protect reporters who receive unauthorized leaks from being forced to testify against the people suspected of leaking to them. A district court judge who had ruled in Mr. Risen’s case had said that it did.
“Clearly, Risen’s direct, firsthand account of the criminal conduct indicted by the grand jury cannot be obtained by alternative means, as Risen is without dispute the only witness who can offer this critical testimony,” wrote Chief Judge William Byrd Traxler Jr., who was joined by Judge Albert Diaz in Friday’s ruling.
Mr. Risen has vowed to go to prison rather than testify about his sources and to carry any appeal as far as the Supreme Court. But some legal specialists said an appeal to the full appeals court was a likely first step. Mr. Risen referred a request to comment to his lawyer, Joel Kurtzberg, who wrote in an e-mail: “We are disappointed by and disagree with the court’s decision. We are currently evaluating our next steps.”
Judge Roger Gregory, the third member of the panel, filed a vigorous dissent, portraying his colleagues’ decision as “sad” and a serious threat to investigative journalism.
“Under the majority’s articulation of the reporter’s privilege, or lack thereof, absent a showing of bad faith by the government, a reporter can always be compelled against her will to reveal her confidential sources in a criminal trial,” he wrote. “The majority exalts the interests of the government while unduly trampling those of the press, and in doing so, severely impinges on the press and the free flow of information in our society.”
Friday’s ruling establishes a precedent that applies only to the Fourth Circuit, but that circuit includes Maryland and Virginia, where most national security agencies like the Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency are. As a result, if it stands, it could have a significant impact on investigative journalism about national security matters.
It has long been unclear whether the Constitution protects reporters from being forced to testify against their sources in criminal trials. The principal Supreme Court precedent in that area, which is more than 40 years old, concerns grand jury investigations, not trials, and many legal scholars consider its reasoning to be ambiguous.
“We agree with the decision,” said Peter Carr, a Justice Department spokesman. “We are examining the next steps in the prosecution of this case.”
The ruling was awkwardly timed for the Obama administration.
Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. has portrayed himself as trying to rebalance the department’s approach to leak investigations in response to the furor over its aggressive investigative tactics, like subpoenaing Associated Press reporters’ phone records and portraying a Fox News reporter as a criminal conspirator in order to obtain a warrant for his e-mails.
Last week, Mr. Holder announced new guidelines for leak investigations that significantly tightened the circumstances in which reporters’ records could be obtained. He also reiterated the Obama administration’s proposal to revive legislation to create a federal media shield law that in some cases would allow judges to quash subpoenas for reporters’ testimony, as many states have.
“It’s very disappointing that as we are making such good progress with the attorney general’s office and with Congress, in getting them to recognize the importance of a reporter’s privilege, the Fourth Circuit has taken such a big step backwards,” said Gregg Leslie, the legal defense director for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
Mr. Risen is a national security reporter for The Times, but the case revolves around material he published in his 2006 book, “State of War,” not in the newspaper. A chapter in the book recounted efforts by the C.I.A. in the Clinton administration to trick Iranian scientists by having a Russian defector give them blueprints for a nuclear triggering device that had been altered with an error. The chapter portrays the operation as reckless and botched in a way that could have helped the Iranians gain accurate information.