The Obama administration is seeking to compel a writer to testify about his confidential sources for a 2006 book about the Central Intelligence Agency, a rare step that was authorized by Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. The author, James Risen, who is a reporter for The New York Times, received a subpoena on Monday requiring him to provide documents and to testify May 4 before a grand jury in Alexandria, Va., about his sources for a chapter of his book, State of War: The Secret History of the C.I.A. and the Bush Administration.
Curiously, the investigation does not involve disclosures about warrantless surveillance by the National Security Agency, which figured prominently in earlier threats raised by the Bush Administration against Risen, a Pulitzer Prize–winning national-security reporter, but rather disclosures about CIA efforts to undermine an Iranian nuclear program:
the agency sent a Russian nuclear scientist — who had defected to the United States and was secretly working for the C.I.A. — 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 C.I.A. had hidden a technical flaw in the designs. The scientist immediately spotted the flaw, Mr. Risen reported. 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. Mr. Risen described the operation as reckless, arguing that Iranian scientists may have been able to “extract valuable information from the blueprints while ignoring the flaws.” He also wrote that a C.I.A. case officer, believing that the agency had “assisted the Iranians in joining the nuclear club,” told a Congressional intelligence committee about the problems, but that no action was taken.
The case is being handled by William Welch II, the former head of the Justice Department’s Public Integrity Section, who was forced to step down after managing a series of botched high-profile prosecutions, including those of former Alaska Senator Ted Stevens and former Alabama Governor Don Siegelman. Welch was cited for contempt of court by Judge Emmet Sullivan in connection with the Stevens case, after it became apparent that prosecutors had suppressed exculpatory evidence and had engaged in other misconduct. Sullivan later directed a criminal inquiry into the prosecution’s handling of the case. The Justice Department then reassigned Welch to handle a series of high-profile national-security cases, most prominently including one against a whistleblower at the National Security Agency.
A 1960 congressional committee looking into the nation’s security classifications called secrecy “the first refuge of incompetents.” It was obvious even then that national-security classifications are often used to protect government officials from having their stupidities exposed. There may be cases when it serves the public interest in national security to keep mistakes under wraps. But mistakes that are kept secret are more likely to be repeated, and those who commit them are more likely to advance to positions in which they can do more costly damage. The passages of the Risen book that are now being scrutinized by prosecutor Welch expose just that sort of embarrassingly inept behavior. The public’s security was in this case plainly served by disclosure, and the prosecution that is apparently being mounted is another gallant defense of the government’s right to keep its inept conduct secret not from foreign enemies but from the American public. Such steps make us dumber, weaker, and less safe.