U.S. District Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson said that reporters for the Associated Press, the Cable News Network (CNN), the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times must tell Lee’s attorneys the names of federal officials who provided them with confidential information about the former nuclear weapons scientist.
The judge fined the news organizations $500 each day until the reporters reveal the names of their sources, but said the payments can be delayed pending appeals, the AP reported Wednesday.
The five reporters are James Risen and Jeff Gerth of The New York Times, Robert Drogin of the Los Angeles Times, H. Josef Hebert of the Associated Press, and former CNN reporter Pierre Thomas, who is now at ABC.
Lee is seeking the identities of the sources for his lawsuit against the Energy and Justice departments and the FBI. He contends that officials from those agencies supplied reporters with private information about him and suggested he was a suspect in an investigation into the possible theft of nuclear secrets from Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. Several news organizations named Lee as the chief suspect.
Lee was indicted in December 1999 on 59 felony counts accusing him of mishandling nuclear weapons information. He spent nearly nine months in solitary confinement, then was released in September 2000 after pleading guilty to a single felony count.
Lee’s attorneys sought the reporters’ depositions last year to help their case against the government. In a ruling last October, Jackson ordered that the journalists must appear for depositions and “truthfully answer questions as to the identity of any officer or agent of defendants … who provided information to them directly about Wen Ho Lee.”
Though the journalists gave depositions, they refused to tell Lee’s attorneys the names of their confidential sources by invoking press protections under the First Amendment.
In his Wednesday ruling, Jackson avoided addressing the issue of First Amendment rights, instead focusing his decision on whether the reporters complied with his October order to fully answer questions in depositions about their sources and concluded they had not.
Lee is “not seeking to ‘punish’ the journalists for publishing the information; rather, he seeks an order of contempt because they will not reveal sources that they have been ordered to reveal,” the judge wrote in his 12-page opinion.
Attorneys for the journalists said they would file immediate appeals to Jackson’s decision.
The New York Times Co. issued a statement from assistant general counsel George Freeman saying that “The Times continues to believe … 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.”
Jackson’s ruling marks the second time in as many weeks that a federal judge has held a reporter in contempt for refusing to name confidential sources. On Aug. 9, U.S. District Chief Judge Thomas Hogan found Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper in contempt for refusing to testify before a federal grand jury investigating the leak of a CIA officer’s identity.
“There’s no way these reporters are going to reveal their confidential sources,” Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, told The Washington Post in response to Wednesday’s hearing. “It’s really big news that five reporters were cited for contempt at once. It’s just another example of the threat the First Amendment is under this summer.”
Unlike in Cooper’s case, the reporters involved in the Lee lawsuit will not face possible jail time.