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Judge orders Glenn Beck to reveal sources for story linking innocent man to Boston Marathon bombing

Glenn Beck in 2009. (AP Photo/The Seattle Times, Alan Berner)

Glenn Beck had found the Boston Marathon bombing’s “money man.” Or at least his sources said so.

In the weeks after the 2013 attack that killed three people and injured 264 others, the conservative media host reported that a Saudi Arabian student was part of the plot. Authorities had “tagged” 20-year-old Abdulrahman Alharbi as a “proven terrorist” who funded the operation, Beck alleged.

“You know who the Saudi is?” Beck, formerly of Fox News, said. “He’s the guy who paid for it.”

The claim was untrue. Police did question Alharbi, who had attended the marathon and was injured in the blast. They even searched his apartment and Facebook account. Within a day of the attack, authorities had cleared him of any wrongdoing.

That didn’t stop Beck from pushing the “money man” theory. In several radio broadcasts and posts on his website TheBlaze, Beck claimed that Alharbi recruited the two brothers who carried out the attack, and ultimately gave them the “go order” for the bombing.

The information, he later revealed, came from confidential sources interviewed by two of his top editors.

Now, a judge says Beck has to give up those sources.

In an order issued Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Patti B. Saris in Massachusetts ruled that Beck must identify at least two officials from the Department of Homeland Security who, according to Beck, gave TheBlaze the information purportedly linking Alharbi to the bombing.

The ruling came in a defamation lawsuit Alharbi filed after the attack alleging that Beck falsely accused him of participating in it, causing him “grave injury.”

Saris’s order could set up a First Amendment battle. If Beck refuses to comply, the judge could impose sanctions or even take the extreme step of jailing Beck for contempt.

Massachusetts, where Alharbi filed his suit, is one of about a dozen states that does not have a shield law protecting journalists from revealing anonymous sources.

Saris acknowledged that her ruling would raise “First Amendment concerns,” but said the document production that she ordered failed to show that authorities indeed thought Alharbi had funded the bombing.

“None of the documents supports the idea that Alharbi was the ‘the money man’ financing the Boston Marathon attacks,” Saris said in the 61-page order.

Attorneys for Beck and Alharbi didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment on the order.

At the time TheBlaze’s reports came out, Beck was ambiguous about where he’d gotten his information. When a co-host asked Beck in one broadcast whether his claims were reporting or “speculation,” he ignored the question.

But in depositions earlier this year, Beck said two counterparts, Joe Weasel and Joel Cheatwood, had communicated with a half-dozen sources — four from DHS and two congressional aides, according to the judge’s order.

Weasel, formerly head of TheBlaze’s investigations unit, testified that he spoke with five of them, while Cheatwood, TheBlaze’s chief content officer, testified that he spoke with one. Saris said the men ultimately based their conclusions about Alharbi on a pair of documents they received from one source and discussed with a second. The documents, dated April 15 and 16 2013, refer to Alharbi as a “suspected terrorist” and “armed and dangerous,” but make no mention of him being the attackers’ benefactor, according to the order.

Weasel said in deposition that the sources didn’t discuss how the attack was financed or whether funds were transferred — a move Saris said may end up helping Alharbi show the defendants were negligent. On top of that, the judge criticized Weasel and Cheatwood for offering “vague and contradictory” accounts of what the sources told them. Weasel, she said, took notes from his discussions on Post-its, “which he then discarded,” and couldn’t recall during his deposition specifically what the sources told him about Alharbi’s involvement in the bombing.

“The plaintiff has a strong need for the sources’ identities to meet his burden of demonstrating that the defendants did not act with the proper standard of care in their reporting about Alharbi,” Saris said.

Saris’s order directs Beck — along with his co-defendants TheBlaze, Mercury Radio Arts and Premier Radio Networks — to disclose the identity of the two sources. They described one as a “founding member” and 13-year veteran of the Department of Homeland Security who is an expert on Islamic terrorism, according to the order; Weasel claimed to have spoken with that source hundreds of times, according to the order. The other source was described as a 20-year veteran of the department with whom Weasel corresponds “routinely.”

The Boston Marathon bombing occurred on April 15, 2013, when Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, detonated two pressure-cooker bombs near the race’s finish line. Tamerlan was shot and killed by police on April 18, and Dzhokar was arrested the following day. After a trial on terrorism charges, Dzhokar was sentenced to death in April 2015.

About a dozen states have shield laws that offer journalists an absolute privilege protecting them from revealing anonymous sources, and more than 20 others offer qualified protections. It’s rare for judges to jail journalists who don’t reveal their sources, but in one of the highest-profile cases in recent memory, New York Times reporter Judith Miller spent nearly three months in jail in 2005 for refusing to identify a government official who divulged the name of a covert CIA officer. Miller later revealed the source to be I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, then-Vice President Richard B. Cheney’s chief of staff.