Washington Post reporter Walter Pincus urged a federal judge yesterday to reconsider her order that he ask his confidential sources to waive their anonymity so that Pincus can name them in a lawsuit.
U.S. District Judge Rosemary M. Collyer held Pincus in contempt Wednesday for refusing to name his sources as demanded by Wen Ho Lee. The former nuclear weapons scientist is suing the government, alleging that officials leaked word of an investigation of his activities at the Los Alamos, N.M., nuclear lab.
Collyer delayed imposing a $500-per-day fine to give Pincus time to appeal, but her written order gave him 48 hours to try to persuade his sources to release him from pledges of confidentiality so that "perhaps, this matter can become moot without further litigation."
Pincus's motion said that Collyer should delay enforcement of that order because his claim to a legal privilege that would enable him to protect his sources presents a "serious legal question," which he has a chance of winning on appeal.
"The Court's Order requiring Mr. Pincus to contact his sources is without precedent and itself threatens to undermine the privilege that has been asserted -- at a stage of the proceedings at which the privilege has not been finally adjudicated," Pincus's lawyers told the court in a late-afternoon motion.
Pincus's motion asked the judge to suspend her 48-hour deadline at least as long as she has suspended the contempt fine. If that is not possible, the motion says, the court should give Pincus more time to contact his sources, and permit him to do so through his lawyers.
The showdown between Pincus and Collyer comes at a time when the relationship between Washington reporters and their confidential sources is at the heart of a CIA leak investigation being conducted by Special Counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald. But the Lee case is a civil suit brought by an individual, not a criminal matter.
Pincus has said that he could not do his job as a national security affairs reporter without the ability to promise sources confidentiality. Lee was the focus of a government espionage investigation, which resulted in most charges against him being dropped. He says he needs to know who Pincus's sources were because he is trying to hold them accountable for allegedly illegally leaking damaging private information about him to the media.