Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter James Risen is leaving The New York Times after nearly two decades, a distinguished run that included standout reporting on the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the Bush administration’s bogus case for invading Iraq, and rampant government surveillance.
Risen, a press-freedom advocate, successfully battled two Washington administrations trying to compel him to reveal a confidential source.
He is the latest high-profile Times journalist to take a voluntary buyout as the paper reorganizes its newsroom. His exit follows the news Thursday that influential book critic Michiko Kakutani also is departing.
Risen confirmed to HuffPost he’s leaving the paper, but declined to elaborate.
Times executive editor Dean Baquet called Risen “one of the giants of national security and investigative reporting.” He said in a statement that the paper would “miss him greatly.”
Risen worked early in his career at The Journal Gazette, of Fort Wayne, Indiana, the Miami Herald, and the Detroit Free Press. He spent 14 years at the Los Angeles Times before joining the Times’ Washington bureau in 1998.
He was part of a Pulitzer Prize-winning team covering intelligence and global terrorism in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and produced some of the Times’ most skeptical reporting on the Bush administration’s case for invading Iraq, even as more credulous reporting landed on the front page.
Risen and then-Times reporter Eric Lichtblau broke the news in December 2005 that the Bush administration had secretly authorized the National Security Agency to spy on Americans ― a blockbuster story that helped net the pair a Pulitzer Prize the following year.
The timing of the NSA story came under scrutiny after it was revealed that Times editors withheld the article for more than a year under pressure from the Bush administration. Risen appeared to force his management’s hand and spur publication by planning to include details of the NSA spying program in his own book.
Risen later recalled there was a “massive game of chicken between me, my book and The New York Times.” The book, State of War, was published in early 2006. “The editors were furious at me,” he said years later in an interview. “They thought I was being insubordinate.”
It was Risen’s reporting in State of War on a bungled CIA operation that prompted the Bush administration to open a leak investigation. Risen refused to reveal his source. The Obama administration, which prosecuted more government officials under the Espionage Act in cases involving disclosures to the news media, also tried compelling Risen to testify about the source for a chapter in the book. The long legal ordeal finally ended in 2015, with the identity of Risen’s source still confidential.
Risen has been outspoken about the Obama administration’s aggressive pursuit of leakers, calling former President Barack Obama the “greatest enemy to press freedom in a generation.” Shortly after the 2016 election, Risen wrote that journalists should thank Obama if President Donald Trump targets the press, arguing that the outgoing administration laid the groundwork for doing so.
Baquet described Risen’s reporting on Bush’s domestic surveillance program as “one of the most consequential stories of the post-911 era,” and praised his “important stories” during the run-up to the Iraq war and his more recent coverage of the CIA’s torture program.
“Through a difficult period he became a powerful spokesman for the freedom of the press,” Baquet said. “We’ll miss him greatly but we know he will continue to be a vital voice in American journalism.”
Times colleague Matt Apuzzo, a fellow Pulitzer winner whose own reporting prompted multiple leak investigations during the Obama era, told HuffPost he considers Risen a mentor.
“Long before he was an example of how to stand up for press freedom, Jim was the example of how to cover national security,” Apuzzo said. “His work will outlive us all.”
This article has been updated to include Baquet’s statement.