WASHINGTON – A federal judge has ordered five reporters, including one from The Associated Press, to reveal their sources for stories that portrayed Wen Ho Lee (search), a former nuclear weapons scientist, as a chief suspect in a Chinese espionage investigation.
U.S. District Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson (search) ordered the reporters to answer questions about their sources and to provide Lee's attorneys with notes and other documents from their reporting.
"It does not detract from the importance of the First Amendment principle at stake to conclude, in the instant case at least," that making possible evidence of government leaks available for trial outweighs the interest of keeping sources confidential, wrote Jackson.
Lee is suing the Energy Department and Justice Department alleging government officials provided private information about him to reporters and suggested he was a suspect in an investigation into the possible theft of nuclear secrets from Los Alamos National Laboratory (search) in New Mexico.
Lee was indicted in December 1999 on 59 felony counts alleging he mishandled nuclear weapons information. He was held in solitary confinement for nine months, then was released in September 2000 after pleading guilty to a single felony count.
The judge apologized to him, saying the government's handling of the case "embarrassed our entire nation and each of us who is a citizen of it."
The journalists ordered to give depositions under Jackson's order are James Risen and Jeff Gerth of The New York Times, Robert Drogin of the Los Angeles Times, H. Josef Hebert of the AP and broadcast reporter Pierre Thomas.
Former Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, now the governor of New Mexico, has said in a deposition that he did not recall whether he talked to the reporters. Other Energy and Justice Department officials also said they did not recall such discussions or did not provide the reporters with the information.
Catherine J. Mathis, vice president of corporate communications for The New York Times, said, "We continue to believe that protection of journalists' confidential sources is essential to providing the public with important information. We expect to seek an appeal."
Dave Tomlin, AP's assistant general counsel, said the parties are deciding whether to appeal the order.
"Before the First Amendment lets you compel reporters to reveal sources, we think you have to do more than get a small handful of government officials to shrug their shoulders and claim they don't know or can't remember," he said.
Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said, "I think it would be highly unusual if the order stands, and secondly if it stands I would be very, very surprised if the reporters complied with it."
The reporters could be fined or imprisoned for contempt of court if they failed to comply with Jackson's order.
Frank Volpe, an attorney for Lee, said he had not seen Jackson's order but assumed the news organizations would appeal.