Maureen Dowd / The Obama administration tries to suffocate the press

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WASHINGTON -- Jim Risen is gruff.

The tall slab of a reporter looks like someone who could have played an Irish Marine sergeant in an old World War II movie.

“Editors think I’m a curmudgeon,” the 59-year-old admits, laughing.

Eric Lichtblau, the reporter who sits next to Mr. Risen in The New York Times’ Washington bureau and who won a Pulitzer with him for their remarkable stories about the Bush administration’s illegal warrantless wiretapping, says Mr. Risen revels in his prickly, old-school style, acting contrary on everything from newfangled computers to the Bush crew’s fictions about Saddam and WMD to cautious editors.

“He’s pushed to go places that often editors are unwilling to go,” Mr. Lichtblau said. “He’s never taken the safe route.”

Once Mr. Lichtblau took him to a pickup basketball game and, naturally, Mr. Risen got in a fight with a lobbyist about the rules for being out of bounds.

As Carl Hulse, The Times’ chief Washington correspondent, wryly puts it: “Whether it’s editors or government officials, Jim definitely won’t take no for an answer, but he will certainly give it.”

Over lunch near the White House on Friday, Mr. Risen, dressed in his Men’s Wearhouse shirt and khakis and his brown Ecco walking shoes, talked about having the sword of Damocles over his head, as the reluctant star of a searing media-government showdown that could end with him behind bars.

“It’s surreal to be caught up in a news story instead of writing about one,” he said, in his soft voice.

He said he was inspired by the Watergate hearings to get into journalism and that he inherited his skepticism about government from his mom, who grew up in Indiana during the Depression, the daughter of an Irish railway machinist who was often out of work. Every time she saw the pyramids on TV, she would say, “I wonder how many slaves died building that?”

Mr. Risen said he’s not afraid that FBI agents will show up one day at the suburban Maryland home he shares with his wife, Penny. (His three sons are grown, and one is a reporter.) But he has exhausted all his legal challenges, including at the Supreme Court, against the Obama administration.

“I was nervous for a long time, but they’ve been after me for six years so now I try to ignore it,” he said, musing that he’s already decided what he’ll take to prison: Civil War books and World War II histories.

The Justice Department is trying to scuttle the reporters’ privilege — ignoring the chilling effect that is having on truth emerging in a jittery post-9/​11 world prone to egregious government excesses.

Attorney General Eric Holder wants to force Mr. Risen to testify and reveal the identity of his confidential source on a story he had in his 2006 book concerning a bungled CIA operation during the Clinton administration in which agents might have inadvertently helped Iran develop its nuclear weapon program. The tale made the CIA look silly, which may have been more of a sore point than a threat to national security.

But Bush officials, no doubt still smarting from Mr. Risen’s revelation of their illegal wiretapping, zeroed in on a disillusioned former CIA agent named Jeffrey Sterling as the source of the Iran story.

The subpoena forcing Mr. Risen’s testimony expired in 2009, and to the surprise of just about everybody, the constitutional law professor’s administration renewed it — kicking off its strange and awful aggression against reporters and whistleblowers.

Mr. Holder said in May that “no reporter who is doing his job is going to go to jail,” trying to show some leg and signal that his intention is benign, merely to put pressure on Mr. Sterling so that he will plead guilty before his trial.

The president and the attorney general both spoke nobly about the First Amendment after two reporters were arrested in Ferguson, Missouri, while covering the racial protests in the wake of Michael Brown’s death. Mr. Obama said that “here, in the United States of America, police should not be bullying or arresting journalists who are just trying to do their jobs and report to the American people on what they see on the ground.”

Mr. Holder seconded the sentiment, saying that “journalists must not be harassed or prevented from covering a story that needs to be told.”

So why don’t they back off Mr. Risen? It’s hard to fathom how the president who started with the press fluffing his pillows has ended up trying to suffocate the press with those pillows. How can he use the Espionage Act to throw reporters and whistleblowers in jail even as he defends the intelligence operatives who “tortured some folks,” and coddles his CIA chief, John Brennan, who spied on the Senate and then lied to the senators he spied on about it?

“It’s hypocritical,” Mr. Risen said. “A lot of people still think this is some kind of game or signal or spin. They don’t want to believe that Obama wants to crack down on the press and whistleblowers. But he does. He’s the greatest enemy to press freedom in a generation.”

Mr. Risen points to recent stories about the administration pressing an unprecedented initiative known as the Insider Threat Program, which McClatchy described as “a government-wide crackdown on security threats that requires federal employees to keep closer tabs on their co-workers and exhorts managers to punish those who fail to report their suspicions.”

Mr. Risen may be trapped in Ibsen, but Mr. Obama is channeling Orwell.

Maureen Dowd is a syndicated columnist for The New York Times.



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