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Steelhammer: Minor league fame is enough

When you follow a career path in bush league journalism, claims to fame tend to be a bit more obscure and imaginative than those staked out by practitioners of the newsbiz at the national level.

I was reminded of one of my claims to minor league glory on Friday, when I read about a federal appeals court ruling that New York Times reporter James Risen must testify in the trial of a former CIA agent accused of leaking classified information. Risen's is one of several cases now in the news involving reporters and leaks being pursued by Attorney General Eric Holder.

I've never met Risen, but I have been to Boone County, and that's where my admittedly thin connection to the New York Times reporter lies.

After covering a series of wildcat miners' strikes there in 1976, I was subpoenaed to testify against two of the strike leaders in U.S. District Court in Charleston. While I didn't really know what my rights were, I was pretty sure that if I testified against the miners, my odds of getting future interviews from them lasting more than two words, one of them "you," would be slim to none. I also knew that a number of sheriff's deputies and other lawmen heard the same speeches I did, and could have produced the same testimony that was being sought from me and other reporters.

I politely told the judge I wouldn't be testifying that day, and was promptly escorted to a holding pen and given a rather dry bologna and cheese sandwich, along with a sentence not to exceed six months for criminal contempt of court. After a few hours, my boss, Don Marsh, bailed me out, along with fellow Gazette reporter Andy Gallagher, who joined me in the stir a few minutes after my arrival.

Our example apparently caused a flurry of testimony among the remaining reporters on the witness list. The only other detainees to be joining us that day were the strike leaders.

Our convictions were eventually upheld, though the sentences suspended, by a federal appellate court.

Since then, United States v. Steelhammer has been cited in a number of proceedings involving reporters trying, almost always unsuccessfully, to avoid testifying in federal court in cases involving their news sources. The case is cited by prosecutors to show that, absent evidence of government harassment or bad faith, reporters have no privilege different from any other citizen not to testify about knowledge relative to a prosecution.

The losing case was also cited in countering author and CNN correspondent Robert Pelton's attempt to quash a subpoena forcing him to testify in "American Taliban" John Walker Lindh's trial in 2002, but Lindh eventually agreed to a plea deal making Pelton's testimony moot.

In 2005, United States v. Steelhammer appeared in filings associated with Time Magazine reporter Matthew Cooper's attempt to avoid testifying about the identity of the news source who outed Valerie Plame, the wife of State Department diplomat Joseph C. Wilson, as a CIA operative in the early days of the Iraq War.

In its most recent reappearance, the case was cited in Risen's unsuccessful attempt to avoid testifying against a CIA news source that allegedly gave him details about a Clinton-era plot to give Iranian scientists faulty plans for a nuclear triggering device. Having a losing case appearing as an obscure footnote in a number of high profile trials may not be a major claim to fame. But here in the minors, I'll take what I can get.


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