WASHINGTON — A former Army scientist investigated in the 3-year-old anthrax attacks subpoenaed several news organizations Friday seeking information about the government sources they used to write stories linking him to the probe.
The subpoenas, directed at the Washington Post, Associated Press and National Public Radio, among others, are part of a lawsuit that former scientist Steven J. Hatfill has filed against the Justice Department and the FBI.
The suit alleges that U.S. officials, including Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft, smeared Hatfill's reputation through a series of public statements and private leaks that linked him to the investigation of the anthrax-laced letters that killed five people in late 2001.
The mystery of who sent the deadly letters remains unsolved. No charges have been filed. Hatfill, once described by Ashcroft as a "person of interest" in the case, has strongly denied any involvement.
Lawyers for Hatfill, a physician and bioterrorism expert, have tried for more than a year to interview FBI and Justice Department employees whom the attorneys suspect of leaking information to reporters.
The judge overseeing Hatfill's civil suit, U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton, has refused to authorize such questioning while the criminal investigation into the attacks is still in progress.
But in October, Walton approved a plan permitting Hatfill to question journalists who wrote about the anthrax investigation.
As part of that arrangement, the government secured pledges from a number of officials releasing journalists from any agreements they had to protect anonymous sources. On Friday, those receiving the subpoenas said they would nonetheless decline to cooperate.
"News organizations are supposed to gather news, as opposed to spending their time performing research and testifying in court on behalf of various parties with axes to grind," Dave Tomlin, the assistant general counsel for AP, said in a report published by the wire service.
Sources said as many as a dozen news organizations, none of which has been named as a defendant in the case, could be targeted for questioning.
According to a copy of one of the subpoenas reviewed by The Times, the request seeks any information about Hatfill that was obtained "directly or indirectly from any person employed by the federal government."
The subpoenas are the latest in a spate of legal actions against news media aimed at learning the sources who gave information to reporters under promises of confidentiality.
Reporters for the New York Times and Time magazine are appealing contempt rulings ordering them to jail for refusing to identify their sources in connection with a probe into the suspected leaking of a CIA operative's name by the Bush administration.
Last week, a Providence, R.I., television reporter was sentenced to six months' home confinement for refusing to tell how he obtained a copy of a secret surveillance tape in a municipal corruption probe.
Five journalists, including Los Angeles Times reporter Bob Drogin, are appealing contempt orders for refusing to disclose their sources for reports about a nuclear weapons scientist under investigation in 1999.