Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Anthrax case menace to reporters' sources

Five US journalists are required to finger the sources who leaked details about a scientist under scrutiny in the 2001 anthrax attacks, a federal judge said Monday.
Once again the first amendment comes under attack. When freedom of the press may be sacrificed, it shows contempt for the US Bill of Rights. So what else is new?

Wire services reported that U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton ordered the reporters to cooperate with Steven J. Hatfill, who has accused the Justice Department and FBI of violating the federal Privacy Act by giving the media information about an FBI investigation of him.

The reporters named are Michael Isikoff and Daniel Klaidman of Newsweek, Allan Lengel of The Washington Post, Toni Locy, formerly of USA Today, and James Stewart, formerly of CBS News.

Walton denied Hatfill's request to demand information from the media companies ABC, The Washington Post, Newsweek, CBS, The Associated Press, The Baltimore Sun and The New York Times.

Hatfill's attorneys want the reporters to reveal the identities of law enforcement officials who were cited anonymously in articles about the investigation. The journalists gave depositions under a court order but refused to reveal their sources, arguing that the First Amendment and a federal common-law privilege shield them from having to disclose the names.

Walton disagreed. He said District of Columbia federal courts have historically denied a common-law reporter's privilege and said he would not "bring into being such a privilege."

Creating such a privilege in this case would have the "perverse effect" of handicapping a plaintiff whose good name was destroyed by government leaks, Walton said. The reporters' fear that testifying would chill the flow of information, Walton said, is outweighed by the Privacy Act lawsuit.

Five people were killed and 17 sickened by anthrax that was mailed to lawmakers on Capitol Hill and members of the news media in New York and Florida just weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Hatfill, who worked at the Army's infectious diseases laboratory at Fort Detrick, Md., from 1997 to 1999, was publicly identified as "a person of interest" in the investigation by then-Attorney General John Ashcroft.

The case remains unsolved six years later. Francis Boyle, a bio-terrorism expert who worked with the Bush administration, contends that the anthrax scare, which heightened terror after the 9/11 attacks, was likely an inside job to push through the passage of the Patriot Act.

The NY Times adds:
The reporters are not defendants in the suit but are likely to face contempt sanctions if they fail to comply with Judge Walton's order.

In April, Judge Walton referred the parties to mediation in an effort to settle the case. A separate lawsuit by Dr. Hatfill against The New York Times, claiming that columns by Nicholas D. Kristof had defamed him, was dismissed by a federal judge in Virginia in January. Dr. Hatfill has appealed.

Last year, the government and five news organizations, including The Times, paid Wen Ho Lee, an atomic scientist once suspected of espionage, $1,645,000 to settle what Judge Walton, in his decision yesterday, called a "strikingly similar" case.

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