As senator, Barack Obama called the Bush Administration’s warrantless wiretapping program illegal, and demanded greater transparency from government.
But as president, he’s strongly defended large components of the program, which involved major telecommunications companies providing the government access to their networks without a warrant to allegedly thwart terrorist plots.
And now, his administration is subpoenaing the very reporter who broke the warrantless wiretapping story in 2005 for the New York Times.
Obama Attorney General Eric Holder approved a subpoena seeking to compel Times reporter James Risen to testify about his sources, which was delivered to Risen on Monday and reported in Thursday’s Times. The paper called the move a “rare step” and said that Holder personally approved the subpoena.
Risen was previously subpoenaed by the Bush Justice Department for the same matter, which involves a book he published on the CIA. That subpoena expired last year.
The subpoena does not concern his reporting on the wiretapping program itself. Instead, it seeks to force Risen to turn over his sources regarding a chapter in his book which deals with a CIA effort to foil Iran’s alleged development of a nuclear weapon.
A Justice Department wouldn’t discuss the subpoena with the Times, but said, Ã¢â‚¬Å“As a general matter, we have consistently said that leaks of classified information are a matter we take extremely seriously.Ã¢â‚¬Â
The Obama Administration has generally sought to aggressively protect classified information.
In 2008, the Obama Administration expanded their defense of former President Bush’s wiretapping program, arguing that government agencies couldn’t be sued for their involvement in it because they were protected by a “sovereign immunity” clause in the Patriot Act.
In fact, a close read of the government filing revealed that the Obama Administration has gone beyond any previous legal claims put forth by former President Bush.
The Obama Administration’s brief contends that government agencies cannot be sued for wiretapping American citizens even if there was intentional violation of US law. They maintain that the government can only be sued if the wiretaps involve “willful disclosure” — a higher legal bar.
Writing about the filing in 2008, constitutional scholar and liberal Salon columnist Glenn Greenwald wrote, “In other words, beyond even the outrageously broad ‘state secrets’ privilege invented by the Bush administration and now embraced fully by the Obama administration, the Obama DOJ has now invented a brand new claim of government immunity, one which literally asserts that the U.S. Government is free to intercept all of your communications (calls, emails and the like) and — even if what they’re doing is blatantly illegal and they know it’s illegal — you are barred from suing them unless they ‘willfully disclose’ to the public what they have learned.”
Risen’s attorney told the Times that the subpoena sought information regarding a specific narrative in his book about a CIA effort to thwart Iran’s nuclear aspirations.
“The book describes how the agency sent a Russian nuclear scientist Ã¢â‚¬â€ who had defected to the United States and was secretly working for the C.I.A. Ã¢â‚¬â€ to Vienna in February 2000 to give plans for a nuclear bomb triggering device to an Iranian official under the pretext that he would provide further assistance in exchange for money,” the paper said. “The C.I.A. had hidden a technical flaw in the designs.”
“The scientist immediately spotted the flaw, Mr. Risen reported,” it added. “Nevertheless, the agency proceeded with the operation, so the scientist decided on his own to alert the Iranians that there was a problem in the designs, thinking they would not take him seriously otherwise.”
Risen received a Pulitzer prize for his 2005 story, “Bush Lets US Spy on Callers Without Courts.”