N.Y. Times Reporter James Risen Ordered to Answer Questions on CIA Source

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The headquarters of the New York Times. Carlo Allegri/Reuters

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A federal judge on Tuesday ordered New York Times reporter James Risen to appear in court to answer questions about his book detailing a failed CIA effort to undermine Iran's nuclear weapons program, in a case that has become a touchstone of press freedom.

Though Risen has taken a firm stance about not revealing the identity of his sources, U.S. prosecutors said in a court filing early on Tuesday they would seek to ask Risen if he had a confidentiality agreement with the individual who provided certain information for the 2006 book "State of War."

They also said they would ask him if he had a "prior non-confidential reporter-source relationship" with former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling, who is facing trial on charges of leaking information to Risen.

At a brief court hearing on Tuesday in Alexandria, Virginia, U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema ordered Risen to appear in court on Jan. 5 to discuss what questions he would answer from both prosecutors and defense lawyers for Sterling.

A lawyer for Risen said his client would show up at the scheduled January hearing if prosecutors issued a subpoena for his appearance, which prosecutors have agreed to do.

Sterling's lawyers said they had many questions for Risen, and that it would "hard ... to fathom" that they could limit their questions to the few that prosecutors had proposed.

Brinkema said she wanted to make sure that parameters of Risen's testimony "are absolutely set in stone" before Sterling's scheduled January trial.

Reuters and other media outlets, quoting a source familiar with the decision, reported last week that Attorney General Eric Holder had decided not to force Risen to divulge the identity of a confidential source, after Risen had refused and risked jail time.

The Obama administration has brought a record number of prosecutions over unauthorized leaks, and Holder came under fire last year over the Justice Department's controversial decision to seize telephone records of the Associated Press, a move denounced by critics as a gross intrusion into freedom of the press.

Holder earlier this year said that no reporter would ever be jailed while he is in office for carrying out news gathering duties.