A federal judge found a Washington Post reporter in contempt of court yesterday for refusing to reveal who gave him information about an investigation of nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee.
U.S. District Judge Rosemary M. Collyer ruled that Lee is entitled to know who reporter Walter Pincus's sources are because his lawsuit against the government for alleged violations of federal privacy law cannot go forward otherwise, and because he has exhausted all other possibilities for getting the information.
Collyer's order carried no threat of jail time. She imposed a fine of $500 a day until Pincus agrees to testify, but suspended the penalty for at least 30 days to give him time to appeal. The judge also gave Pincus 48 hours to seek his sources' permission to reveal their names, "in order," she wrote, "to avoid a repetition of the Judith Miller imbroglio."
Miller is a former New York Times reporter who recently spent 85 days in jail for her refusal to reveal sources to a grand jury investigating the alleged White House leak of CIA officer Valerie Plame's identity. She left jail after then-White House aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby gave her permission to reveal that he spoke to her.
"We are pleased with the court's decision," said Lee's lawyer, Brian A. Sun. "We intend to continue our efforts to seek accountability from those government officials we believe have violated the law by inappropriately leaking information about Dr. Lee. Our dispute is with leakers, not with journalists."
Pincus, Washington Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. and Post attorney Eric Lieberman said they were reviewing the ruling and could not comment further.
The Lee case differs from the Plame case in that it is a civil lawsuit brought by an individual rather than a grand jury criminal investigation initiated by the government.
Pincus's lawyers had urged Collyer to use her authority to recognize a civil-case reporters' privilege, based on the value to the public of information gathered by the press from confidential sources. They also argued that the First Amendment gives reporters a privilege to protect their sources in civil cases.
But Collyer rejected both arguments, ruling that they were not supported by precedent and that "new privileges should be created sparingly and with caution."
In a 33-page opinion, Collyer said Pincus's situation was no different from that of four other journalists -- 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 -- who have already been held in contempt in the case. Their contempt citations were recently upheld by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.
The government initially pursued a case against Lee, a former scientist at the Los Alamos nuclear weapons lab, for purportedly smuggling weapon-design secrets to China. Lee was held in solitary confinement for nine months, but most of the charges, widely reported in the media, 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.