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The Nation

Journalists Ordered to Give Sources to Scientist

Judge's decision is part of the nuclear expert's suit over leaks and could play into CIA furor.

October 15, 2003|Richard B. Schmitt | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — A federal judge has ordered five journalists, including a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, to identify government sources for their articles about former nuclear weapons scientist Wen Ho Lee.

Lee is suing the government, alleging that officials illegally divulged private information about him in the course of investigating his role in suspected espionage at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico four years ago.

If upheld on appeal, the decision by U.S. District Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson could also play into the furor surrounding allegations that the Bush administration leaked the name of a CIA operative to journalists to retaliate against her husband, a critic of the administration's Iraq policy.

The CIA employee and her husband, former State Department envoy Joseph C. Wilson IV, are considering legal action against the government, alleging that the leak invaded their privacy and caused emotional and other distress.

An attorney for the Wilsons, Christopher Wolf, said Jackson's ruling in the Lee case could strengthen the family's hand in any civil suit in trying to pinpoint the person who unmasked Wilson's wife.

"If we ever get a reporter in the witness chair under oath, and there is no other way to get the information, I think it is likely a court would order disclosure of the source," Wolf said, adding that no decision had yet been made about filing such a suit.

Lee, a Taiwanese-born naturalized U.S. citizen, was indicted by federal authorities in 1999 on 59 felony counts for allegedly mishandling nuclear-weapons secrets by copying classified data to portable computer tapes.

He was never charged with espionage, and eventually the government's case crumbled. Lee pleaded guilty to a single count of mishandling classified information.

His civil suit against the government seeks damages, alleging that officials violated his privacy rights by leaking information about him to reporters.

His lawyers say they have been unable to identify which officials leaked the information, and asked Jackson to compel the testimony of journalists as a last resort.

The court "has some doubt that a truly worthy 1st Amendment interest resides in protecting the identity of government personnel who disclose to the press information that the Privacy Act says they may not reveal," Jackson wrote in a ruling issued late last week.

The journalists ordered to give depositions under Jackson's order are Bob Drogin of The Times, James Risen and Jeff Gerth of the New York Times, H. Josef Hebert of Associated Press and Pierre Thomas of CNN.

"The ruling is certainly troubling, especially to the extent that it excuses Dr. Lee from having to make real efforts to find the information that he is seeking from the government and allows him to turn to the journalists to get that information, in our view prematurely," said Lee Levine, a Washington lawyer representing Drogin and The Times.

"There are obviously a number of news organizations involved, and I am sure we will be coordinating on where we go from here," he said.

Under federal law, journalists have no unqualified privilege to keep their sources confidential, the Supreme Court ruled in a 1972 case.

A number of states, as well as the District of Columbia, have enacted their own "shield" laws that afford journalists some protection, although Jackson held that the local law did not apply in Lee's case, which was brought under a federal statute.

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