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Reporter in Contempt Over Source

Walter Pincus of the Washington Post is given 48 hours to comply in a federal lawsuit being brought by a former Los Alamos scientist.

November 17, 2005|Tom Hamburger | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — A federal judge held a Washington Post reporter in civil contempt Wednesday and instructed him to seek waivers from confidential sources so he could testify about their discussions in an ongoing civil case brought by a former nuclear engineer who claims his privacy was violated during a 1999 criminal investigation.

U.S. District Judge Rosemary M. Collyer ordered Walter Pincus to contact his sources and comply with the court's orders within 48 hours.

Pincus had previously refused to divulge the names of his sources to lawyers for Wen Ho Lee, a scientist who worked at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and who has said that information about him was leaked in the late 1990s suggesting he was giving nuclear secrets to China.

The case against Lee unraveled and he ended up pleading guilty to a single felony count of mishandling classified information.

He later received an apology from a federal judge.

In Wednesday's ruling, Collyer repeatedly cited the recent case of former New York Times reporter Judith Miller, who was jailed for nearly three months over her refusal to testify in the inquiry into the leak of the identify of Valerie Plame, an undercover CIA officer. Miller ultimately testified this fall after receiving a personal waiver from her source.

"In order to avoid a repetition of the Judith Miller imbroglio, the court will also order Mr. Pincus to contact each and every one of his government sources to inform them of the court's order," Collyer wrote. She said she hoped that after doing that, Pincus would agree to provide the names of his sources to Lee's attorneys.

Lee is suing the Justice and Energy departments, claiming that, through a series of news leaks, government officials violated his privacy by disclosing personal information. In October 2003, U.S. District Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson ordered five journalists, including Bob Drogin of the Los Angeles Times, to respond to questions about their sources.

Although the reporters are not parties to Lee's lawsuit, the information about what they were told by government sources was requested repeatedly by Lee's attorneys.

The five reporters all refused to identify their sources, and all were held in contempt in August 2004.

Pincus also claimed that he had legal privilege to protect his sources. But like Jackson in 2003, Collyer has found that the privilege was outweighed by the damage done to Lee and his right to seek redress.

Failure to comply with her order will result in fines of $500 a day, the judge said, though the fines will be delayed if Pincus chooses to appeal.

Pincus, reached at home Wednesday evening, said he would have no comment on the judge's "novel" approach to getting reporters to reveal their sources. He and his lawyers are planning to meet and discuss the judge's order this morning.

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