A federal judge yesterday canceled a contempt-of-court order against Time magazine and one of its reporters, Matthew Cooper, after Cooper was interviewed by Justice Department prosecutors investigating who leaked the identity of a covert CIA operative to journalists.
Officials at Time said Cooper, who had been threatened with jail time for refusing to respond to a grand jury subpoena, gave a deposition Monday about his conversations with a single anonymous source -- I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, chief of staff for Vice President Cheney -- after Libby waived Cooper's responsibility to keep their conversations on the topic confidential. Time officials said Libby was the only source of Cooper's that special counsel prosecutors asked about.
Matthew Cooper faced a jail term of as long as 18 months for not responding to a grand jury subpoena.
Cooper is at least the third journalist to answer questions under pressure from prosecutors about private conversations with Libby in July 2003. The inquiry seeks to determine whether any senior administration official knowingly revealed the identity of undercover CIA operative Valerie Plame to syndicated columnist Robert D. Novak and other journalists. It can be a felony to do so intentionally.
"Matt would have gone to jail if Libby didn't waive his right to confidentiality . . . and we would have fought all the way to the Supreme Court," said Time Managing Editor Jim Kelly. "Matt has been absolutely steadfast in his desire to protect anonymous sources."
U.S. District Chief Judge Thomas F. Hogan on Aug. 6 found Cooper and Time in contempt of court. Cooper faced as long as 18 months in jail, and the magazine could have been fined $1,000 a day, until he answered Special Counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald's questions. Time appealed but acknowledged it had little hope of persuading a higher court to put reporters' confidentiality agreements above the interests of a criminal investigation.
The inquiry was sparked by a July 14, 2003, column by Novak that first named Plame. The column questioned the findings of Plame's husband, former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, whom the CIA sent to Niger in 2002 to investigate claims that Iraq had tried to buy uranium in the African nation for its weapons-of-mass-destruction program.
At the time, Wilson was a prominent critic of Bush administration statements on Iraq's efforts on such weapons and their use in the buildup to war. He suggested that his wife's identity was leaked in retaliation but has since backed off that claim.
Novak wrote that two administration officials said Wilson was recommended for the CIA mission by his wife, offered it as an explanation for his selection and raised doubt about his expertise.
Novak and his attorney James Hamilton have refused to say whether the columnist has been subpoenaed to testify before the grand jury, and declined again yesterday.
Subpoenas were recently issued to Walter Pincus of The Washington Post, who wrote in October 2003 that White House officials had talked to a Post reporter about Plame, and Judith Miller of the New York Times. The Post filed a motion to quash Pincus's subpoena Friday, arguing that the First Amendment gives reporters a privilege to protect confidential sources. A hearing is expected in September.
Two Newsday reporters were asked by Fitzgerald to answer questions this spring, and threatened with subpoenas, but they declined to talk. They said yesterday that they have not been contacted again.
Cooper's reluctant decision to cooperate with prosecutors has shed more light on the unusual year-long investigation but left many questions unanswered. So far, Fitzgerald has focused enormous investigative energy poring through the records of Cheney's top aide and interviewing journalists who spoke with him.
NBC Washington correspondent Tim Russert and Post reporter Glenn Kessler gave interviews to Fitzgerald under similar circumstances earlier this summer, also with waivers from Libby. Both journalists said they did not have to identify confidential sources and they told Fitzgerald that Libby did not reveal Plame's name to them.
Lawyers and journalists involved in the case say Fitzgerald is going through a methodical process of elimination for all contacts between reporters and senior administration officials last summer, and is waiting until the end to question Novak.
"To go about finding out who Novak's sources are by going after half the journalists in town seems pretty indirect, and a little weird," said Lucy A. Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. "I think it's absolutely clear these reporters don't have information that goes to the heart of who the leaker is. "