Interesting development in a civil suit that should be getting more attention:
Five reporters must reveal their government sources for stories they wrote about Steven J. Hatfill and investigators’ suspicions that the former Army scientist was behind the deadly anthrax attacks of 2001, a federal judge ruled yesterday. The decision from U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton is yet another blow to the news industry as it seeks to shield anonymous sources who provide critical information — especially on the secret inner workings of government.
“The names of the sources are central to Dr. Hatfill’s case,” Walton wrote in a 31-page opinion.
The ruling is a victory for Hatfill, a bioterrorism expert who has argued in a civil suit that the government violated his privacy rights and ruined his chances at a job by unfairly leaking information about the probe. He has not been charged in the attacks that killed five people and sickened 17 others, and he has denied wrongdoing.
Hatfill’s suit, filed in 2003, accuses the government of waging a “coordinated smear campaign.” To succeed, Hatfill and his attorneys have been seeking the identities of FBI and Justice Department officials who disclosed disparaging information about him to the media. In lengthy depositions in the case, reporters have identified 100 instances when Justice or FBI sources provided them with information about the investigation of Hatfill and the techniques used to probe his possible role in anthrax-laced mailings. But the reporters have refused to name the individuals.
The decision means that five journalists — Allan Lengel of the Washington Post; Michael Isikoff and Daniel Klaidman, both of Newsweek; Toni Locy, formerly of USA Today; and James Stewart of CBS News — are under instruction from the court to answer specific questions about who provided them with information about the investigation’s focus on Hatfill.
This seems rather significant. I’ll leave it to the legal eagles to say whether the ruling has a chance of holding up. I’ll just say this: All of sudden the penumbra crowd is not so fond of the penumbras:
Walton declined to recognize the existence of a federal common law privilege for reporters. Also, the judge broadly defined the kinds of information that, if released, would violate the Privacy Act to include almost anything specific to Hatfill and suspicions about him. Media lawyers argued the Privacy Act was not intended to apply to the information they reported about Hatfill.
Glenn Reynolds observes:
“There’s no constitutional reason for these sources to be protected, and no other good reason that I can see. The press’s abuse of anonymous sources is in the process of generating considerable blowback, and rightly so.”
How quickly the unsolved anthrax attacks have faded from public memory. We’re nearing the sixth anniversary of 9/11, but nowhere near solving the anthrax terrorism that occurred in the wake of the suicide plane missions. 22 injured, five dead. And no clue:
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