updated 9/28/2006 1:04:54 PM ET 2006-09-28T17:04:54

George Keyworth's secret talks with a reporter cost him his seat on Hewlett-Packard's board, but the renowned physicist and former presidential adviser doesn't want to be called a leaker.

As prosecutors and a congressional panel probe HP's cloak-and-dagger tactics for unmasking the culprits behind a series of boardroom leaks, Keyworth, 66, is waging his own campaign to save his reputation.

He resigned from the board on Sept. 12 after being publicly outed as the anonymous source in a story by CNET's News.com that triggered HP's ill-fated leak investigation. To find out who was talking to the reporter, investigators posed as directors and journalists to trick phone companies into divulging detailed call logs, a possibly illegal tactic that has landed the company in a legal quagmire.

But Keyworth says he's been unfairly tarnished for his anonymous participation in one story — a bombshell-free account of a board retreat published in January by News.com, a technology-focused Web site.

The story included information on acquisition and computer chip strategies and an innocuous description of the board's tiring work at a posh retreat in the California desert. "By the time the lectures were done at 10 p.m., we were pooped and went to bed," said the source later identified as Keyworth.

The CNET article was a positive piece that contained "previously published and clearly public" information, said Keyworth's lawyer, Reginald Brown, who said his client had the best interest of HP shareholders in mind.

Keyworth declined to comment and has signed an agreement with HP not to disparage the company. But friends say the label of leaker is especially hurtful for Keyworth because of his past.

A former science adviser to three U.S. presidents, he headed the physics division at Los Alamos National Laboratory, where he was privy to classified nuclear weapons secrets and prided himself on keeping confidential information to himself.

"He knows it's a bum rap," said Harold Agnew, the former director of Los Alamos. "He may feel there's skullduggery going and they're trying to make him out as the bad guy — what else can you do? You can go to some remote South Seas island and sit there, or you can try to set the record straight."

At the time the CNET story appeared, HP had just finished an inconclusive investigation into the source of earlier leaks. Chairwoman Patricia Dunn, incensed by the new breach, ordered a new probe.

HP said its board was plagued by damaging leaks for years and that it hurt the company's reputation and violated board members' confidentiality agreements. It also claimed the leaks had the potential to move markets, though the CNET article had little impact on the company's stock price.

While Keyworth, who had been the company's longest-serving director, has acknowledged speaking to reporters frequently with the company's blessing, HP hasn't released evidence linking him to any other media leaks.

Still, outside investigators hired by HP spied on Keyworth and his wife, sifted through their trash and tried to install snooping software on the computer of the CNET reporter, Dawn Kawamoto.

"The enduring truth is that neither Dr. Keyworth, his family, nor any journalist ever deserved to be tailed by spooks or to have their private records purloined," Brown said.

The scandal has so far led to the resignation of three board members — Dunn, Keyworth and venture capitalist Tom Perkins — and two HP employees, including Kevin Hunsaker, HP's chief ethics officer, who directed the investigation and left the company on Tuesday. The company declined to comment further on his departure.

Anthony Gentilucci, who managed HP's global investigations unit in Boston, voluntarily resigned on Monday.

Dunn, CEO Mark Hurd, General Counsel Ann Baskins and several others involved in the probe are to appear this week before a congressional panel.

State and federal authorities are also investigating, and California Attorney General Bill Lockyer has said he has enough evidence to indict HP insiders and contractors.

Kirk Hanson, executive director of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University, said Keyworth crossed an ethical line by sharing details of private boardroom discussions. But his reputation could be unfairly damaged because of the company's overzealous and possibly criminal pursuit of the source of the leaks, he said.

"This leak will not go down in history with Watergate or this week's National Intelligence Estimate leak" of a classified report concluding the Iraq war has worsened the terrorist threat, Hanson said.

"They're much more important," he said. "But HP's reaction to the leak will down in history. And Keyworth's reputation will be dragged along by HP's shaming, whether he deserved it or not."

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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