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National security reporter honored by first-amendment group

New York Times reporter James Risen was given a First Amendment award.

Joanne Rathe/Globe Staff

New York Times reporter James Risen was given a First Amendment award.

He never thought it would come to this, but James Risen is prepared for jail.

“The choice is get out of the business — give up everything I believe in — or go to jail,” said Risen, a national security reporter at the center of a major press-freedoms case, on a visit to Boston Friday. “They’ve backed me into a corner.”

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Through two presidential administrations, Risen has resisted the US Department of Justice’s attempts to get him to reveal the identity of an anonymous CIA source.

His refusal to testify and commitment to a free press as a check on government earned him an award Friday from the New England First Amendment Coalition .

“There’s no one anywhere on the vast landscape of American journalism who merits this award more than you do,” Northeastern University professor Walter V. Robinson, a former Globe Spotlight Team editor, told Risen in presenting the Stephen Hamblett First Amendment Award.

“It is hard to imagine a more principled and patriotic defense of the First Amendment.”

Risen shared a 2006 Pulitzer Prize with colleague Eric Lichtblau for a New York Times series reporting the federal government’s secret domestic eavesdropping program.

That same year, Risen’s book “State of War” included an anonymously sourced chapter on a botched CIA operation to disrupt Iran’s nuclear program.

The government ultimately indicted Risen’s suspected source and subpoenaed Risen to testify, an order upheld last year by a federal appeals panel and by the full US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.

Risen’s lawyers asked the Supreme Court last month to recognize his right to protect his source. If the high court declines to take the case or rules against Risen, he must take the stand or risk jail.

Risen said he has tried not to let that deter his continued reporting, and he has drawn strength from family and colleagues in the news media.

Times executive editor Jill Abramson, who helped introduce him at a luncheon at the Park Plaza, joked that she was hoping for Risen’s sake that lunch would include “a cake with a file inside.”

But she struck a serious note about his work, calling it vitally important to the public, while hailing his integrity and perseverance.

“Jim continues to do what he always does, which is to report, listen to sources, honor the information they bring to him, check it out, and report newsworthy issues of importance to the public in a fair and deep and probing way,” she said.

For Risen, the Hamblett Award, named for a former Providence Journal publisher, represented a homecoming of sorts; his first journalism job came as a Brown University stringer for the Journal in the 1970s.

By the 1990s, Risen was covering national security, catching what he called the end of a “post-Watergate golden era” of reform, transparency, and belief in the role of an active press.

That changed after the 2001 terrorist attacks, with the public willing to cede civil liberties as the government engaged in a secretive, taxpayer-funded war on terrorism, Risen said. Our understanding of elements of that war, be it wiretapping or drone strikes, has come through reporters and whistleblowers, he said.

“We’re now into the second decade of the transformation of our culture,” he said. “A lot of people were willing to believe it when the federal government would say that reporting on the war on terror or revealing certain aspects of the war on terror was somehow disloyal or was somehow an act of treason.”

He called the Obama administration as restrictive with information and more aggressive in clamping down on reporters and leaks than the Bush administration, while “fighting an entire world war in total secret.”

“That, to me, is what’s at stake and what I’m trying to fight for,” Risen said.

Eric Moskowitz can be reached at emoskowitz@globe.com.
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