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Times reporters defy order to reveal sources

Two New York Times reporters defied an order by a federal judge Thursday to disclose their sources in a lawsuit filed by a scientist once suspected of spying.
/ Source: Reuters

In a case that has raised concerns about journalists' rights, two New York Times reporters defied an order by a federal judge Thursday to disclose their sources in a lawsuit filed by a scientist once suspected of spying.

The reporters, James Risen and Jeff Gerth, are among five journalists subpoenaed by Wen Ho Lee, who sued the government for allegedly violating the federal Privacy Act by leaking personal information from his employment records to the reporters.

U.S. District Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson denied the journalists' motions to quash the subpoenas in October and ordered them to appear Thursday and disclose the identity of their sources on Lee.

"Risen and Gerth answered the questions, although on some of the questions they chose to take advantage of their First Amendment privilege on identifying sources," Catherine Mathis, a spokeswoman for the Times, told Reuters.

Journalist advocacy groups and lawyers said the importance of Jackson's order went far beyond the Lee lawsuit and threatened what they argued were First Amendment rights of freedom of the press.

Making reporters reveal their sources destroys their credibility and independence, they argued.

"The New York Times and its journalists have had a long-standing practice of protecting confidential sources, a principle we believe is critical for the press to provide a free flow of information to the public," Mathis said.

But in his order, Jackson said, "The court has some doubt that a truly worthy First Amendment interest resides in protecting the identity of government personnel who disclose to the press that the Privacy Act says they may not reveal."

No absolute privilege
Lee subpoenaed the reporters in hope that their testimony would prove that the Justice and Energy departments and the FBI violated his privacy rights.

U.S. law does not grant absolute privilege to journalists that would be comparable to that of a priest or doctor.

The other subpoenaed reporters are Robert Drogin of the Los Angeles Times, Josef Hebert of the Associated Press and Pierre Thomas, formerly of CNN and now working for ABC News. Neither the reporters nor their companies were immediately available for comment.

A source close to the case said the three other journalists were due to give their depositions in early January.

"There is no question that we are in very dangerous territory here. No question at all," said Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

"It's very seldom that you see such an all-out attack on the reporters' privilege like this," she said.

Lee was fired from his job at the Energy Department's Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico in March 1999 amid allegations of spying for China. He was never charged with espionage and pleaded guilty only to one count of downloading nuclear weapons design secrets to a non-secure computer after the government's case against him collapsed.