updated 8/18/2004 6:06:19 PM ET 2004-08-18T22:06:19

A federal judge held five reporters in contempt Wednesday for refusing to identify their sources for stories about Wen Ho Lee, a former nuclear weapons scientist once suspected of spying, a lawyer said Wednesday.

U.S. District Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson imposed a fine of $500 a day for Associated Press reporter H. Josef Hebert, James Risen and Jeff Gerth of The New York Times, Robert Drogin of the Los Angeles Times and Pierre Thomas of ABC, who was at CNN when the stories were done.

The fines are to continue until the reporters comply with Jackson’s order to reveal the information, but Nathan Siegel, the AP’s lawyer, said the fines will be delayed pending an appeal.

The reporters contend they provided all the relevant information they could without defying a commitment to protect their sources.

Lee is seeking the identity of the sources for his lawsuit against the departments of Energy and Justice. He alleges the agencies gave reporters private information on him and suggested he was a suspect in an investigation into possible theft of secrets from Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

In the order, Jackson rejected the reporters’ arguments that Lee could obtain the information he seeks elsewhere. He said he was holding the five in contempt because they violated his explicit order.

“The journalists declined to reveal their confidential sources,” Jackson said.

Siegel said the AP would appeal.

First Amendment argument rebuffed
During the hearing, Lee’s lawyer Brian Sun said learning the identities of the journalists’ sources was critical to pursuing Lee’s privacy action against government officials.

“Although the journalists would posit this as a battle of the First Amendment, we would submit it’s not just that,” Sun said. “It’s undisputed that classified information was leaked and government officials acknowledged there were leaks. (Lee) is being deprived of crucial information.”

Last week, a federal judge held a Time magazine reporter in contempt for failing to reveal sources in a grand jury investigation into the leak of an undercover CIA officer’s identify last year. Prosecutors have subpoenaed at least four other journalists, and the reporter held in contempt, Matthew Cooper, is appealing.

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