WASHINGTON - The Justice Department is considering offering New York Times reporter James Risen a deal that could enable him to avoid jail time over refusing to testify in a national security investigation and save face for prosecutors under increasing pressure for their handling of First Amendment issues, according to a senior Justice Department official.
The department has been given a deadline of Tuesday by U.S. District Court Judge Leonie Brinkema to decide whether to enforce a subpoena requiring Risen to testify in the prosecution of CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling on charges of disclosing national defense secrets on Iran to Risen.
Risen appealed the subpoena all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which turned him down in June. Sterling's trial is scheduled to begin in January.
The senior official, who was not authorized to speak publicly on the case, said Justice Department lawyers have asked Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. to approve an arrangement in which Risen does not have to name his source, but will testify about other circumstances surrounding his reporting.
Risen reported in his 2006 book State of War that several Iranian agents of the CIA had been exposed by the agency after a CIA message to one of its agents contained revealing information. Sterling was arrested in 2011.
Joel Kurtzberg, a lawyer for Risen, said he had not heard from the Justice Department about any deal.
"The Justice Department has not made any offers to us of any kind," Kurtzberg said. "The devil, of course, would be in the details. We would listen with an open mind."
Risen was first subpoenaed in the case in 2008, but has always said he would go to jail rather than identify his source. But recently, despite his losses in the courts, his prospects of avoiding jail time have improved as the Justice Department finds itself under increasing pressure for trying to force journalists to testify.
Holder has said several times in recent months that no reporter would go to jail under his watch for doing his or her job, and President Obama has voiced a similar sentiment. Prosecutors in Virginia have nevertheless continued to press for Risen's cooperation.
Holder's public statements may have diminished any incentive Risen has to cooperate.