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James Risen and the Fascinating Real-Life Inspiration Behind 'The Newsroom's' Espionage Act Storyline

By Dustin Rowles | TV | November 30, 2014 |

By Dustin Rowles | TV | November 30, 2014 |

Operation Merlin was a covert operation launched under the Clinton Administration in 2000 and endorsed later by the Bush Administration, which was designed to provide Iran with flawed blueprints to build a nuclear weapon, potentially setting the country back in their pursuit of a weapon of mass destruction. The plan, however, backfired when the defected Russian nuclear scientist recruited by the CIA ending up pointing out the flaws to Iranians in order gain credibility with Iranian scientist and avoid retaliation. Ultimately, instead of thwarting Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon, it only brought them closer.

The public never would’ve known about Operation Merlin, however, had it not been for a former CIA Employee Jeffrey Sterling, a whistleblower who revealed the information to New York Times journalist James Risen, who then used the information in his book, State of War.

For that leak, Sterling was ultimately brought up on charges for, among other crimes, mishandling national defense information, becoming only the fifth person in United States history to be indicted under the Espionage Act.

However, in order to prove the government’s case against Jeffrey Sterling, U.S. attorney Neil H. MacBride sought to compel James Risen to reveal his source, arguing that Risen was the only person who could identify Sterling as the perpetrator of the charged offenses. Risen was initially subpoenaed in 2008, but refused to reveal his sources. The Obama Administration renewed the subpoena in 2010. Risen, again, refused to testify against Jeffrey Sterling, claiming journalistic privilege.

The case was ultimately appealed to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in 2013, and that court ruled that Risen had to testify in the trial of Sterling. In June 2014, the Supreme Court rejected Risen’s appeal, leaving open the possibility that Risen would be held in contempt and imprisoned until he agreed to testify against his source.

Though The Newsroom creator and writer Aaron Sorkin hasn’t identified James Risen as the inspiration for this season of The Newsroom, the parallels between the Sterling/Risen case and that of McAvoy/Anonymous in The Newsroom are obvious: In Aaron Sorkin’s HBO show, the FBI is attempting to use the Espionage Act to force Will McAvoy to release the name of his source, who leaked documents pertaining to an American disinformation campaign. The major difference in The Newsroom is that the government doesn’t already know the name of the source, while in the Sterling case, the government knew, but needed Risen to provide proof.

Jeffrey Sterling is one of seven government employees (including Edward Snowden) charged under the Espionage Act under President Obama for leaking classified information to the press (more people have been indicted under the Espionage Act under Obama than any other President), but it’s the only case in which the journalist was compelled to reveal his source. Compare that to The Newsroom, where Will McAvoy became the first journalist to have the Espionage Act used against him.

Of course, as we found out in tonight’s episode, “Contempt,” the Department of Justice called Will McAvoy’s bluff and imprisoned him for failing to reveal the name of his source. Meanwhile, to this day, Risen continues to refuse to testify against Sterling. To his credit, Attorney General Eric Holder noted in October 2014 that “no reporter’s going to jail as long as I’m attorney general.” Unfortunately for Risen, Holder announced his resignation as Attorney General the month before. In the meantime, Holder continues to remain in office while Obama attempts to push through a successor, and Risen’s fate remains in limbo.

Earlier this month, James Risen was on The Daily Show to talk about the case, and the seven years of harassment he has suffered in order to protect his source.