WASHINGTON — A New York Times reporter was jailed Wednesday for refusing to submit to questioning by a special prosecutor investigating possible wrongdoing by the Bush administration, but a Time magazine reporter avoided jail at the last minute by agreeing to cooperate with the government.
U.S. District Judge Thomas F. Hogan ordered Judith Miller, 57, imprisoned until she agreed to testify in an investigation into the naming of a CIA operative, declaring that the rights of journalists to gather news and protect confidential sources must occasionally yield to the power of prosecutors to demand testimony and investigate suspected crimes.
In the test of press freedoms, Miller's lawyers had contended that the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter should not be sent to jail because she was exercising her 1st Amendment rights. But Hogan said journalists had no greater rights than other citizens when called upon to testify in federal proceedings.
The judge's order was the culmination of an emotional court hearing in which the fates of the two journalists took dramatically different turns. While Miller braced for jail, Time reporter Matthew Cooper surprised the court by announcing that he would agree to testify in the case.
Both had been held in civil contempt of court by Hogan for their refusal to identify sources in their investigations of the possibly illegal disclosure of the identity of a CIA agent by a Bush administration official.
Cooper said a source in the CIA leak investigation had phoned him Wednesday morning to release him from his pledge of confidentiality and had encouraged him to testify. That source has not been identified.
White House political strategist Karl Rove has acknowledged speaking with Cooper in the past, but has denied unmasking the CIA agent. Asked whether Rove was the source who called the Time reporter to waive his confidentiality, his lawyer, Robert Luskin, said Wednesday night that the strategist had "not contacted Cooper about this matter," but declined to comment further.
"I have a person in front of me who is defying the law and may be obstructing justice," Hogan said in pronouncing judgment on Miller. "The court has to take action." He said he feared that letting Miller avoid testifying would put the judicial system "on a slippery slope to anarchy."
Miller was escorted from the courtroom by U.S. marshals. Hogan said she would be confined in the Washington area. She reportedly was seen entering an Alexandria, Va., detention center.
Unless she agrees to talk, Miller will be imprisoned for the duration of the term of the federal grand jury investigating the leak case, about four months. But Hogan raised the possibility that she might be held in criminal contempt if she continued to defy the order to testify, which could add months to her sentence.
The jailing drew widespread criticism from media groups, which said it would make it harder for journalists to do their jobs and to cultivate confidential sources willing to share secrets about government misconduct. They said it would also embolden prosecutors to use the power of the courts to coerce journalists to share their reporting with investigators to help them do their jobs.
Editors at the New York Times supported their reporter, saying she had made a brave and principled choice.
"There are times when the greater good of our democracy demands an act of conscience," Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. said in a written statement. "Judy has chosen such an act in honoring her promise of confidentiality to her sources."
Although the jailing of reporters is rare, Hogan's order exposed Miller to what may be one of the longest jail terms that a journalist has faced for refusing to reveal confidential sources.
Freelance author Vanessa Leggett served a record 168 days, starting in 2001, for refusing to disclose notes and sources used in preparing a book about a murder case in Houston. A Los Angeles Times reporter, William Farr, was jailed for 46 days in 1972 for refusing to reveal sources for a story he wrote for another paper about the Charles Manson trial.
Outside the courthouse Wednesday, Cooper declared that it was "a sad day not only for journalists, but for our country."
He said he had intended to continue to defy the court if he had not received the last-minute reprieve from his source. "I gave my word to a source and I kept it for two years," he said. "This morning, in what can only be described as a stunning set of developments, that person agreed to give me a personal, unambiguous, uncoerced waiver that I could speak to the grand jury."
The move followed a decision last week by his employer, Time Inc., which separately had been held in contempt in the case, to turn over notes and e-mails that in effect revealed Cooper's source. Hogan said Wednesday that, because of Time Inc.'s action, the court would vacate the contempt order, which had exposed the publishing company to a potentially massive fine.