Most Sources Refuse to Let Post Writer Testify on Lee

By Christopher Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 6, 2005

A Washington Post reporter held in contempt of court last month for refusing to identify anonymous government sources told a federal judge yesterday that all but one of them had declined to waive confidentiality pledges he made.

U.S. District Judge Rosemary M. Collyer found Walter Pincus in contempt for refusing to name his government sources as demanded by Wen Ho Lee, the former nuclear weapons scientist who is suing the government for allegedly leaking damaging information about him to the press.

On Nov. 16, Collyer ordered Pincus fined $500 a day , but suspended the penalty pending an appeal. The judge ordered Pincus to contact his sources and determine whether they would consent to the disclosure of their names.

In an affidavit filed with the court yesterday, Pincus said he had contacted his government sources and all had declined to release him from his pledge of confidentiality. Pincus also said he contacted one person "who may or may not be regarded as a government source," and that person had agreed to release him from his promise.

"I am prepared to answer questions identifying the source who released me from my pledge of confidentiality," Pincus said in the affidavit. He declined to comment yesterday.

Washington Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. said, "Walter has done what the court asked, and now we're going to pursue the appeal."

Collyer has ruled that Lee is entitled to know who Pincus's sources are because his lawsuit against the government for alleged violations of privacy law cannot go forward otherwise, and because he has exhausted all other possibilities for getting the information. Her order last month carried no threat of jail time for Pincus.

Lee and his lawyers have said the scientist needs to know who Pincus's sources were because Lee is trying to hold them accountable for allegedly leaking damaging private information about him to the media.

Pincus has said that he could not do his job as a national security affairs reporter if he were not able to promise sources confidentiality.

The federal government pursued a case against Lee for allegedly smuggling weapon-design secrets to China. He was held in solitary confinement for nine months, but most of the charges -- which were widely reported by the media -- eventually were dropped. Lee pleaded guilty to a single count of mishandling computer files in 2000 and was freed with an apology from a federal judge.

Four other journalists have been held in contempt in the case, including James Risen of the New York Times, H. Josef Hebert of the Associated Press, Bob Drogin of the Los Angeles Times and ABC News's Pierre Thomas, who was then at CNN. Their contempt citations were upheld by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company