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2015 / James Risen

James Risen, author and New York Times investigative journalist, is the recipient of the 2015 Ridenhour Courage Prize. Risen is credited for his bold and forthright reporting shedding light on government abuses and his refusal to betray his sources in the face of overwhelming pressure and legal intimidation by the Bush and Obama administrations.

In summarizing its decision to award Risen, the selection committee said, “Throughout his distinguished career, James Risen has investigated the world’s most secretive and powerful government agencies. His work has opened doors they’d prefer kept shut and shed light on clandestine and unauthorized activities. From revelations of excessive government surveillance to exposing the CIA’s controversial ‘Operation Merlin’ in Iran, his incisive reporting has highlighted the frequent contradictions between the conduct of our government and the fundamental principles of our democracy. Risen has fought bravely to protect his sources and combat pressures that would undermine his work and that of other journalists, even fighting a subpoena and vowing to go to jail if needed. We’re honored to award James Risen the 2015 Ridenhour Courage Prize for his years of fearless reporting at the highest level of American journalism, his selfless defense of the First Amendment, and for championing and defending the core principles of journalistic integrity.”

James Risen is best known for his reporting on government surveillance and the War on Terror. He was the winner of the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting for an exposé on the National Security Administration’s “Stellar Wind” program, which revealed the administration’s massive spying dragnet, as well as for his writings on the Terrorist Finance Tracking Program. He also received a Pulitzer in 2002 as a member of the New York Times reporting team that won the award for explanatory reporting for coverage on the September 11th attacks.

Risen is the author of four books: Wrath of Angels: The American Abortion War, which is the first comprehensive history of the anti-abortion movement in the United States; The Main Enemy: The Inside Story of the CIA’s Final Showdown with the KGB, which examined CIA-KGB spy wars; the national best-seller State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration; and most recently, Pay Any Price: Greed, Power and Endless War, an exhaustive examination of the War on Terror and the “homeland security industrial complex.”

“I’m deeply honored to receive The Ridenhour Courage Award and am humbled to be included among its amazing recipients,” said James Risen. “It is this kind of support that sustained me during my seven-year battle with the government, and that today will drive me to continue the fight for press freedom in the United States.”

2015 Courage Prize Speech

Transcript of the Courage Prize speeches

SEYMOUR HERSH:  Moving right along, you’ve all seen the citation, maybe, for Jimbo in your booklet. And I’m very glad that the program also tells you, if you read about it, it tells the award dwells as much on Jimbo’s reporting over the last decade, along with noting his assistance, I guess, it’s a good word for that, in the face of threat after threat from the Justice Department that the government could go fuck itself, which is basically what he’s been saying.

I’m not an expert on going to jail, but I do know a lot about reporting, and Jimbo’s got the disease big time. The idea that there always must be a counter narrative, and that idea’s informed his reporting since he was at the L. A. Times. There are no heroes in Jimbo’s world. You can talk all you want about hope and change, but if you decide to expand the war in Afghanistan soon after becoming President, Jimbo’s going to tell the American people on the front page of the Times that your administration has gone into business with the gang of drug dealing bank hustling high end thieves.

And many here this afternoon know how hard Jim had to fight to intense bureaucracies a decade ago; the Bush-Cheney combine and the cowardly lions then managing the New York Times to get in print his earth-shaking story about the White House’s desire to wire up everyone in the cosmos.

Jimbo was the target, in my view, of the Justice Department not only because of the important stories he broke, but also because the government knew he has sources. And they knew that Jimbo understood that his primary obligation was to protect them. I learned about his skill in that area two decades ago, actually, when I was chasing some knowledgeable, very knowledgeable CIA guy, I was romancing him about some foreign policy story. He was a great Arabic speaker. Jim, you remember the guy, he had a girlfriend who kept a rabbit in their apartment in New York and he– it’s true, can’t make this stuff up– anyway, this guy asked me not to write a story that I’d been working on for months because, as he told me, he’d already given the most relevant he had to Jim Risen of the L. A. Times. That was in the mid-’90s and who the hell was Jim Risen of the L. A. Times?

Jimbo, the last few years have not been fun for you. I know seriously you realize you believe your job is not to be in the news but to report and write it. But you’ve been a credit to the tribe and I hope this word doesn’t piss you off, a role model for how to stay the course, be yourself in the most horrific of times. I can say nothing more flattering and more accurate than to observe that you and Ronald Ridenhour, the wonderful Ronald Ridenhour, would have been the best of friends, congratulations. [applause]

JAMES RISEN: Wow, I don’t know what to say. All I can say is Sy Hersh has been my hero for a long time. I think he’s the greatest journalist in America, so to have him– [applause] to have him introduce me is an award into itself, so thanks for those kind words. This is a great honor, and especially to be included with the other awardees, it’s amazing. And I don’t have– I didn’t prepare any speech because I don’t really– I’m not really sure I deserve this award because I think the real courage in this, the last few years, has been required of whistleblowers and not journalists, and I think that– [applause] they’re the ones who face the hypocrisy of the Obama Administration more than I do. And the fact that we have the most secretive government since the Nixon Administration.

And so all I can say is I’ve tried to uphold basically the traditions of the industry. I think I’ve not done anything that any other reporter would have done, and so when people say that it was good what I did, I said, you know, I think it’s the basic requirement of the industry. So, I just want to thank you very much, but I’m not sure I deserve it.

I do think that we in the press have to speak out more about the crack down by the Obama Administration on freedom of the press in the United States. Many people, whenever I say that, a lot of people look at me quizzically like why do you think the Obama Administration is doing this? Or why do you think they’re so bad? You know, do you really think they’re that bad? And I just feel like those people haven’t been paying attention. People think that they can’t be that bad because they’re liberals, or whatever. I mean, it doesn’t make– a friend of mine, Charlie Savage at the New York Times who’s writing another book now, I always kid him that the main difference on the war on terror between the Bush Administration and the Obama Administration I think is that the Bush people did it because they believed in it. And the Obama people do it now for whatever reason. [laughter] But they feel bad about it. That’s the big difference.

So, I just want to– first of all, I really should thank my wife because the only reason I was able to endure this process, the rather pleasant experience of getting another Justice Department for the last seven years was because of my wife. And I used to tell my lawyers that it would be– we shouldn’t tell the Justice Department about my wife and her because she was a real rock who was making sure that I didn’t crack. And so, that was the real secret to my success, was Penny. So, anyway. [applause]  But I just want to say thank you and I really appreciate this very much. Thank you very much. [applause]

Conversation between James Risen and Laura Poitras

JULIA ANGWIN:  Great, we’re just going to adjust the podium and bring Jim Risen back for a quick discussion. Okay, so it’s a long lunch and we’ve taken over time, but it’s such a treat to have these two together on stage and so we’re going to do a quick conversation about whether there’s anything to be hopeful about. [laughter] Jim, your alleged source is being sentenced next week. Somebody else who leaked secrets to his mistress, the CIA director, received his sentence, which was rather light. What is the hope for convincing sources in the future to take these risks?

JAMES RISEN:  Well, I can’t talk about any specifics of my case, but it just strikes me that it was always clear to me that there was a double standard in the way in which leak investigations have been handled. Going back to when I first started covering the CIA in the 1990s, it was very different. That was an environment in which when you wrote a story and you broke something the CIA didn’t like, they would get all mad and they would say, “We’re going to have a leak investigation,” and it was kind of like Claude Rains in “Casablanca.” They would say, “Let’s round up the usual suspects,” and then you would never hear about it again.

And that was kind of the– there was like this purposeful ambiguity in the system in which everybody– nobody really wanted to go to the– go full out on these leak investigations. And so everybody– there was like a mutual détente between the press and the government. Then after 9/11, that’s all changed and now there is this aggressive approach to leak investigations that didn’t exist for the previous 30 years. And because it’s just kind of happened over the last few years, there’s no– seems to be no coherent approach by the government to it. It’s whoever– but the one fact that seems to be constantly true is that top officials can get away with things that other people can’t. That some pigs are more equal than others. And that seems to be particularly true in the Obama Administration.

JULIA ANGWIN:  Well, that’s an unfortunate result because then that means the only leaks that get leaked are the ones the administration lets.

JAMES RISEN:  Yeah, I think the White House, the Obama Administration is making– I think the one thing that they’ve accomplished is to create a very clear pathway for accepted journalism. If you write stories on especially national security that they like, you won’t have any problems. If you write stories they don’t like, you will have problems. And it’s as simple as that. That is their approach to leak investigations.

JULIA ANGWIN:  Well, okay, we didn’t get any hope out of that part of it. Laura, any hope we can find? Your source is living in exile in Moscow. [laughter]

LAURA POITRAS:  I actually think there is some hope. I think that we’re– first of all, I mean, the work that Jim does and the fight that he’s gone through I think is such an inspiring testament to Jim that we all learn from.

I feel that there’s hope in a number of things in the sense of journalism being more adversarial and not sort of taking the government’s line. I mean, this is kind of a hard thing to say as a hopeful thing, but the word torture can now be printed in the New York Times, which is a good thing.

JULIA ANGWIN:  Progress!

LAURA POITRAS:  No, that we’re waking up. I mean, that we’re waking up, that the sort of national security argument for why we can’t know the truth, I think people are seeing that it’s a false argument, and I think we’re seeing it– and that people are coming forward and we’re seeing sources willing to take enormous risks, and journalists take enormous risks. And I think that we just have to keep pushing.

JULIA ANGWIN:  One thing I’ve been thinking about a lot is what is the moral obligation that journalists have towards their sources? Because the standard line that I always heard in any newsroom I was ever in was the lawyers would say to me, “There’s nothing,” right? They hand you this stuff and I, lawyer for my company, am going to fight for you, the journalist, all the way but we’re not doing anything for the source. And this was very clear in Snowden’s fleeing. I’m not aware of the newspapers being involved in that. And I think that’s generally a line that traditional media has not wanted to cross.

And I wonder if it’s time to rethink that in some way. And I have a kind of strangely provocative question for you, Jim, which is that in your book you go under cover. And one thing I was thinking about, and you may not have thought of it this way, but one thing I was thinking about is maybe undercover is a way to protect sources because you’re taking all the risk, right?

JAMES RISEN:  Yeah, that’s interesting. I hadn’t thought of it that way, but it is– the whole issue of what does– that’s why, as I said earlier, it takes more courage to be a whistleblower than it does to be a journalist. And I don’t know the– I’ve struggled with that and I don’t know the answer to it. It’s a really important question, though, that we should be talking about more. But I don’t know right now what to do about it.

JULIA ANGWIN:  I think one of Laura’s answers has been to give money to Tails, right? So this is a tool that journalists can use for secure communications. So one possible answer might be newsrooms could invest in better tools and technology to help protect their sources.

LAURA POITRAS:  Well, yeah. I mean, I do think news organizations have an obligation to provide better digital training to journalists that are working with sources that are at risk. I think that’s just an obligation to do at this point. And I think that we need to– that should just be the standard, that journalists understand that they’re leaving a trail if they’re using their real name in talking to sources and using their phones, et cetera.

And in terms of Snowden seeking political asylum, he looked very well at the landscape when he made his decision. I mean, he’d seen what had happened to Thomas Drake and William Binney and the NSA 4. I mean, you can’t have– how many combined years of service is that? That’s, what, 60, 70 years of service to this country and they’re treated the way that they were? I mean, it’s shameful. If you look at that, what chance did he have?

And I think that he was also motivated because I think he felt that it was important to have a voice and to stand up and not hide. To say these things are wrong, this is what is wrong and this is who I am.

JAMES RISEN:  I do think that ultimately the Obama crackdown on leaks is going to be– have a backlash of some kind. I think in a way, and kind of one of the unintended consequences of the leak crackdown is first Manning and Snowden where if you realize now as a whistleblower it’s going to– you kind of have to– that whatever you do, you’re going to be punished for, so you might as well take everything.


JAMES RISEN:  And so it kind of turns– I think it creates so much– it’s like putting a lid on a pressure cooker that by the leak investigations that I think the system is going to blow at some point.

JULIA ANGWIN:  I think also that the days are kind of waning, in my mind, where the public is willing to believe a story without sort of the documents, right? There’s like a new threshold where people want to see the evidence, right? And so that also changes the equation where maybe you don’t have to meet in a garage if you can find a way to secretly slip the documents out.

JAMES RISEN:  Right, yeah. I mean, there’s all kinds of reporting issues around encryption and everything I could get into that sometimes– encryption can raise a red flag, but I agree with Laura. It’s something that we have to become more– it has to become more commonplace.

JULIA ANGWIN:  One thing that Jane Mayer said, I think, is that– an investigative journalist with The New Yorker, that sources are a little bit drying up because they’re worried about the environment. Is that your experience?

JAMES RISEN:  Well, it’s kind of a mix. I mean, some people don’t want to talk, obviously others do. So, it’s in some ways the government’s case against me was good advertising.

JULIA ANGWIN:  Right. [laughter]

JAMES RISEN:  So it depends, you know?

JULIA ANGWIN:  Laura, and we have to wrap up, but would you tell us a little bit about what you’re doing now? I think you’re working on a Whitney show?

LAURA POITRAS:  I’m doing a few things. I’m really excited working at the Intercept and we’re going to start to do more videos, so that’s very exciting. And because I really believe in visual journalism, and that’s what I feel like I can contribute. And yeah, I’m doing some more art related work where I’m going to, I think, look at similar themes but in a different way.

JULIA ANGWIN:  Okay, thank you very much. And thanks to all of the winners. [applause]