Contempt ruling sends disturbing message worldwide

New York, August 18, 2004—The Committee to Protect Journalists is deeply disturbed by a federal judge’s ruling today holding five reporters in contempt for refusing to identify sources for stories about Wen Ho Lee, the nuclear scientist once suspected of spying.

U.S. District Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson imposed daily fines of $500 against H. Josef Hebert of The Associated Press, James Risen and Jeff Gerth of The New York Times, Robert Drogin of the Los Angeles Times, and Pierre Thomas of CNN. The fines will be delayed pending an appeal, the AP reported.

Each had refused to identify confidential sources in court depositions for a civil lawsuit filed by Lee against the U.S. government. Jackson rejected the reporters’ arguments that Lee could obtain the information he seeks elsewhere, the AP reported

Jackson’s finding was the second in two weeks in which a U.S. District Court judge in Washington, D.C., ruled against journalists on issues involving confidential sources. On August 11, Judge Thomas F. Hogan held Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper in contempt for refusing to identify confidential sources in the case of former CIA intelligence officer, Valerie Plame.

“Together, these rulings send a terrible message worldwide that U.S. courts are now willing to force journalists to reveal confidential sources,” CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper said. “Journalists around the world are routinely compelled to cooperate with government investigations, and these rulings can only reinforce that practice.”

The five journalists were issued subpoenas as part of a lawsuit brought by Lee in which he alleges that anonymous U.S. officials in either the Energy or Justice departments released confidential information from his personnel file. Lee sued the U.S. government under the Privacy Act.

Lee is a former scientist with the U.S. Department of Energy, who in 1999 was at the center of a controversy involving alleged espionage at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. Although widely reported to have been suspected of espionage by U.S. law enforcement agencies, Lee was never charged with spying. He was fired for security breaches, and pleaded guilty to the felony of mishandling classified information.

Jackson had already upheld the issuing of subpoenas against the five journalists. The court later approved a subpoena against Walter Pincus of The Washington Post for the same reason, although Pincus has yet to defend himself in court.

George Freeman, assistant general counsel for The New York Times, said in a statement that the newspaper “continues to believe, as we have for decades, that confidential sources are critical for us to give the public as broad a perspective as possible on
the important issues of the day, particularly when they concern the actions of government.”

“Reporters simply could not do their jobs if they could be forced to identify their confidential sources,” Freeman said.