Former Los Alamos scientist Wen Ho Lee is back in the news. Now he is suing the federal government for supposedly violating his Privacy Act rights. His lawsuit claims that government officials violated those rights by leaking personal information from his employment records to the media. Efforts by his lawyers to pry the names of the supposed offenders out of government officials have thus far failed.
So Lee decided to go after a handful of reporters who covered the story back in 1999. These include Jeff Gerth and Jim Risen of the New York Times, Bob Drogin of the Los Angles Times, the AP’s Josef Hebert, and Pierre Thomas, then working for CNN. Curiously absent from the list is Washington Post reporter Walter Pincus, who was the first to pinpoint a suspect in the W88 espionage case as an Asian-American computer scientist working at Los Alamos. In October, federal judge Thomas Penfield Jackson, famous for his handling of the Microsoft case, ordered the reporters to submit to depositions.
Gerth and Risen were the first to face Lee’s lawyers, shortly before Christmas. By all accounts, both refused to disclose their sources or hand over their notes and other documents, as ordered by the judge. If Jackson finds them in contempt for not answering questions about their sources, the two could face jail time. The Times is supporting its journalists. In a public statement, a spokesperson said protection of confidential sources is a “principle we believe is critical for the press to provide a free flow of information to the public.”
Media advocacy groups think Jackson’s ruling is threatening the First Amendment right of freedom of the press. Reporters without Borders has appealed to Judge Jackson to rescind his order. Jackson has dismissed First Amendment claims as “frivolous.” But Reporters without Borders says that his order “threatens one of the bases of investigative journalism, an essential element of democracy.”
Not all media types think Jackson’s order is a bad idea. Los Angles Times columnist Robert Scheer thinks in this case reporters should be forced to reveal their sources. Scheer, a noted far-left journalist, claims anonymous government officials deliberately leaked false information to the media about Lee, although he doesn’t explain exactly why.
Like Alger Hiss, Lee seems to think that the best defense is a good offense. His supporters on both ends of the political spectrum have portrayed him as an innocent scapegoat of a vengeful government. Never mind that a declassified Justice Department report revealed two decades worth of suspicious activity by Lee on behalf of the Peoples Republic of China. Or that a federal prosecutor concluded that sufficient probable cause had existed to suspect Lee of conducting espionage on behalf of China. But the media, including the Times, have completely ignored this part of the Wen Ho Lee story. Lee, of course, pled guilty to one felony count of mishandling classified information.