Citing a journalist's need to keep news sources confidential, a federal judge in Santa Ana declined Thursday to order a reporter to reveal the names of federal officials who leaked information to him for a 2006 story about a grand jury investigation into a scheme to send sensitive military technology to China.
Washington Times reporter Bill Gertz was subpoenaed to testify in federal court by U.S. District Judge Cormac Carney.
But during the hearing, Carney announced that he had been notified by a Department of Justice official that the agency planned to subpoena Gertz to testify before a federal grand jury about the leaks.
Gertz took the stand and cited his 5th Amendment right not to testify in light of the threatened subpoena from the Justice Department.
Carney said government prosecutors wanted to question Gertz about the leaking of classified information.
After the hearing, Gertz's attorney, Charles Leeper, said his client had not received a subpoena and did not know anything about the government's plan to question him.
Gertz, who reports on national security issues, had filed a brief before Thursday's hearing saying that he would be unwilling to disclose his sources. However, in a written ruling, Carney said he should still be prepared to testify "regarding the newsworthiness of this case and, more particularly, the reasons why maintaining the confidentiality of his sources is critical to his ability to engage in investigative reporting."
Rick Pullen, a 1st Amendment expert who is dean of the College of Communications at Cal State Fullerton, said he was perplexed by Carney's reasons for asking Gertz to appear in court.
On Thursday, Carney appeared to answer his own questions.
In his ruling, he said freedom of the press is an important fundamental right and acknowledged a reporter's need to protect sources.
He said Gertz performed a valuable public service through his reporting of the Chi Mak case.
Nevertheless, the judge said that he had a duty to subpoena Gertz to testify, even if he were to decline to press him to reveal his sources, because Justice Department officials concluded that someone illegally had leaked secret grand jury information to Gertz.