By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 18, 2008
A federal judge in California has ordered Washington Times reporter Bill Gertz to appear in court next week to explain why he needs to protect the identity of confidential sources he used in writing an article about a spy case, and why he considered the subject newsworthy.
In a May 2006 article, Gertz attributed to "senior Justice Department officials" information about charges to be filed against Chi Mak, a Chinese-born engineer working for a California-based defense contractor, including charges of espionage and, with three relatives, conspiracy to export articles involving Navy technology. The story also identified a potential new defendant.
Chi was convicted last year of conspiracy to export sensitive defense information and of being an unregistered foreign agent. His relatives pleaded guilty to related offenses.
In November 2006, however, U.S. District Judge Cormac J. Carney ruled that although the article did not prejudice a defendant's right to a fair trial, it represented a violation of grand jury secrecy. He ordered an investigation to determine whether any government official was the source of the unauthorized disclosure, which is a federal crime.
That inquiry did not uncover Gertz's sources, so Carney subpoenaed him to find out the identity of his sources. In moving to quash the subpoena, Gertz contended that he did not disclose grand jury information and that he needed to protect the identity of his sources.
On Monday, Carney ordered Gertz to appear in court July 24 to explain his reasons, as reported in the New York Sun. The judge wrote that he expects Gertz "will be prepared to testify regarding the newsworthiness of this case and, more particularly, the reasons why maintaining the confidentiality of his sources is critical to his ability to engage in investigative reporting."
When subpoenaed, journalists frequently file affidavits explaining their refusal to disclose the identity of their sources, but it is uncommon for a judge to order them into court to question them on their reasoning.