The former agent, Jeffrey Sterling, was indicted in January for telling Risen Top Secret details of a failed CIA plot to sabotage Iran's nuclear program in 2000. Risen never wrote about the plot, called Project Merlin, for the Times—the CIA was able to convince the paper that the story would harm national security—but he did write about it in his 2006 book State of War.
Prosecutors say Sterling, who has a long and contentious history with the agency, which he sued for racial discrimination in 2002, leaked the information to Risen during a series of telephone and e-mail contacts from 2002 to 2004. And they want to call Risen to the stand because he is, in the words of a 34-page motion accompanying the subpoena [pdf], an "eyewitness to the charged crimes."
Risen was previously subpoenaed twice to testify or provide documents to the grand jury investigating Sterling's case, and in both instances he successfully challenged the order. He told the Times that he intends to challenge this subpoena, too.
There's no blanket federal shield law for reporters, though some federal courts have recognized protections to prevent reporters from being forced to give up sources unless it's absolutely necessary. Under Department of Justice guidelines, Attorney General Eric Holder has to personally sign off on subpoenas compelling reporters to testify about their sources in federal prosecutions.
In the brief accompanying the subpoena, prosecutors anticipated that Risen would fight it, and raised the rather Kafka-esque prospect that he could be called to testify about every detail of his conversations with his sources save for their identities. He could also, they argued, be called to testify about non-confidential conversations with Sterling, whose lawsuit Risen covered for the Times. According to the indictment against Sterling, the FBI had access to his communications with Risen, including phone calls and emails, going back years.
[Photo of Risen via AP]