A federal judge found Washington Post reporter Walter Pincus in contempt Wednesday, saying the journalist must reveal his government sources for stories about the criminal investigation of nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee.
U.S. District Judge Rosemary Collyer said that “in order to avoid a repetition of the Judith Miller imbroglio,” Pincus must contact his sources to inform them of the court’s order in case they wish to release him from his pledge of confidentiality.
Miller, a former New York Times reporter, served 85 days in jail for contempt in the CIA leak investigation, agreeing to talk only after she spoke by telephone with her source, former top White House aide I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby.
The ruling is the latest example of court-ordered pressure on journalists to reveal their confidential sources.
Relying on anonymous sources, Pincus and reporters for other news organizations in 1999 identified Lee as the focus of a criminal investigation into the possible theft of nuclear secrets on behalf of China.
Never charged with espionage and eventually allowed to plead guilty to a single count of mishandling computer files, Lee is seeking the identity of the reporters’ sources for his lawsuit against the departments of Energy and Justice. Lee says the government improperly disclosed personal information about him in violation of the Privacy Act.
“The transcendent importance of a free press is that reporters can report the news and express opinions without fear of government oppression or interference,” Collyer wrote. “The right to keep confidential an anonymous source is not ‘transcendent’ in the same sense; this is clear because the privilege is qualified even under the stirring language of the Constitution.”
This month, a federal appeals court rejected four journalists’ appeal of a judge’s order directing them to testify about their confidential sources in the Lee case.
The reporters are H. Josef Hebert of The Associated Press, James Risen of The New York Times, Robert Drogin of the Los Angeles Times and Pierre Thomas, formerly of CNN and now of ABC.
“Mr. Pincus is no less important as a potential witness concerning government leaks than the journalists from other media outlets, and the court finds no basis to reach a different decision concerning him.”