Washington Times national security reporter Bill Gertz told a federal court Tuesday that protecting the confidentiality of his sources was "absolutely essential" to his future ability to do his job and that being forced to divulge the people he talked to concerning a Chinese espionage case would infringe on his First Amendment rights.
U.S. District Court Judge Cormac J. Carney has ordered Mr. Gertz to appear at 9 a.m. PDT Thursday in his Santa Ana, Calif., courtroom, seeking to compel the reporter to answer questions about a May 16, 2006, article published in The Times about the Chinese espionage case, which cited unnamed sources.
"The provision of any additional information about the source(s), the circumstances under which the information was provided, or the development of the May 16, 2006 article, would surrender the very protection that the First Amendment and the Reporter's Privilege are intended to guarantee," Mr. Gertz stated in a declaration filed Tuesday by his attorneys with the court.
The impending court appearance comes as protection for reporters who use confidential sources has become a priority on Capitol Hill.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced Tuesday that the Senate will consider S. 2035, the Free Flow of Information Act, which would provide a federal privilege for reporters to "protect and encourage" information-sharing between journalists and sources and to secure the public´s "right to know."
Mr. Reid, Nevada Democrat, wants lawmakers to address the bill before the August recess.
The House approved a similar measure 398-21 in October. The bill is supported by both presumptive presidential nominees, Sens. John McCain, Arizona Republican, and Barack Obama, Illinois Democrat.
The federal "shield law" also has been lauded by industry groups, according to a joint statement issued Tuesday by the Newspaper Association of America, the National Association of Broadcasters and 50 other news or media organizations that have purchased advocacy ads in several congressional publications to make their point.
In a declaration, Mr. Gertz stated that in the past 23 years, he frequently has relied upon confidential sources "to provide information necessary to the reporter's function of keeping the public informed of events of national interest."
"Without the information provided by confidential sources, these events - or important aspects of these events - would remain shielded from public and congressional scrutiny and oversight."
Such sources, particularly government officials, will not share "sensitive, closely held information" without absolute confidentiality and trust, the declaration states.
"Protecting the identities of my confidential sources is absolutely essential to my ability to do my job," Mr. Gertz wrote, noting that if disclosing such sources were to become commonplace, it would have a chilling effect on other potential sources and the "quantity and quality of investigative reporting and critical analysis would decline."
In his 2006 story, Mr. Gertz quoted unnamed government officials as saying that senior Justice Department officials approved an indictment against Chi Mak, an engineer who worked for Power Paragon, an American defense contractor, charging him with conspiracy and "unlawful export of defense articles."
Three of his relatives would also be charged, the story said.
Defense attorneys in the case objected to Mr. Gertz's account, asserting that the government violated the Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 6(e), which bars federal officials from giving information about grand jury proceedings to outsiders.
Judge Carney ordered a wide-ranging criminal investigation to determine who leaked information to the journalist.
"The confidential source(s) who provided information did so on the understanding that his, her or their identity would never be revealed," Mr. Gertz wrote in his declaration.
He also drew attention to other cases of espionage and technology transfer by "Chinese operatives" since the article was published, the criminal cases closely followed by national, state and local media.
"The American public has a significant stake in the vigorous investigation and prosecution of foreign nationals and others whose activities threaten U.S. national security and economic interests. It is difficult to identify another topic of more pressing interest to the American public, and possessing greater 'newsworthiness,' than the matter of our collective personal safety and economic security," Mr. Gertz concluded.