When the Founders created the Federal government, they made sure to include enough checks and balances that not one of the three branches would become more powerful and have undue influence over another. But since the entire government itself requires a few checks and balances from time to time, they also found it necessary to establish, through the First Amendment to the Constitution, the freedom of the press.

Though you might not be able to tell in the time of 24-hour news programs and clickbait headlines, the press is considered to be the fourth branch of the government – an independent check on the power of the state.

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So anyone that cares even a little bit about the government being held accountable for its actions should get a queasy feeling when one of the three main branches tries to exert its influence over the fourth. So we should all be feeling sick now that a reporter might soon be facing time in prison as a result of exactly that kind of overreach.

James Risen, a long time correspondent of The New York Times is at serious risk of being locked up because he had the gall to be a decent reported in the 21st century. He exercised his First Amendment rights and tried to hold the federal government accountable for some of its irresponsible actions. Sound familiar?

In his 2006 book State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration, Risen wrote about a secret CIA plan to derail the Iranian nuclear program. The operation, dubbed Merlin, called for the creation of fundamentally flawed plans for the trigger system of nuclear weapons. They were then to be passed to the Iranians in order to sidetrack them for years. Unfortunately, the Russian scientist tasked with passing on the plans spotted these supposedly well-hidden flaws and explained them to the Iranians.

According to Risen, Merlin not only didn’t sidetrack the Iranians’ nuclear weapons program – it may actually have fast-tracked it. Unsurprisingly, the Bush Administration didn’t take kindly to the publication of the details of a major gaffe in a delicate intelligence operation. The Justice Department subpoenaed Risen and demanded that he reveal his source or be charged with contempt of court.

Instead, Risen demonstrated some journalistic integrity, not to mention extraordinary courage, and refused to give up his source. In 2009, the new Obama administration kept up the pressure and renewed the subpoena. Risen has thus far still refused to give up the name of his informant.

In his rejected appeal to the Supreme Court, Risen stated that the information he disclosed in his book served the greater good of the public. The time of the publication of his book coincided with heightened tensions with Iran – war was not outside the realm of possibility then. Risen argued that the information in his book was key to understanding how poor the US’s efforts to contain the Iranian nuclear program were. In the instance of Merlin, they didn’t just do a poor job; they might have actually made things worse.

The people of the United States have a right to know when their government puts the entire international community at risk. Especially in the buildup to a possible war, we should have access to as much information as possible – especially the stuff the government is embarrassed to share. The months and weeks before a war are full of misinformation, propaganda, and outright lies. After Iraq, we should be very concerned with having the whole story before we get involved anywhere. Protecting national security is a valid reason for keeping many things classified, but it is all too often used as an excuse to silence the media and stomp all over civil rights.

Image Credit: Flickr (via Creative Commons)

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Holly Whitman

Holly Whitman is the author behind Only Slightly Biased, a freelance journalist and striving to be one of the best women political writers on the web. Her work has been featured on Yahoo Finance, Fortune, Politicus, Bust and Feministing. You can find her on Twitter at @hollykwhitman.

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