WASHINGTON -- The U.S. government and five news organizations agreed yesterday to pay $1.65 million to former nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee to end a lawsuit claiming that his privacy was violated by leaks that portrayed him as a spy.
Lee sued the government, not the news media. But he subpoenaed five reporters and demanded that they name the federal officials who spoke to them.
The unusual agreement heads off a Supreme Court confrontation over whether reporters can be fined and jailed for refusing to reveal their sources to lawyers who are pursuing a civil suit.
"This was never about whether the stories were right or wrong, or about libel or about classified information," said Bob Drogin of the Los Angeles Times, who was one of the reporters subpoenaed. "We had fought this for four years and lost at every level. And we thought there was a great risk for the press if we took it before the Supreme Court and lost."
This year, the high court refused to block the jailing of New York Times reporter Judith Miller, who declined to disclose her sources in a criminal prosecution involving leaks from the White House. Experts in media law said yesterday that they were not aware of another case in which news organizations had agreed to pay a settlement when they were not sued.
Jane Kirtley, a law professor at the University of Minnesota, said the news organizations were in an "untenable position," but she feared that the settlement would set a precedent that would encourage more lawsuits.
The government did not acknowledge any wrongdoing but agreed to pay $895,000.
The media organizations - ABC, the Associated Press, the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times and The Washington Post - said they agreed to pay $150,000 each to avoid further costs of fighting the case.
The Los Angeles Times is owned by Tribune Co., which also owns The Sun.
"We were reluctant to contribute anything to this settlement, but we sought relief in the courts and found none," they said in a statement. "The journalism in this case - which was not challenged in Lee's lawsuit - reported on a matter of great public interest, and the public could not have been informed about the issues without information that we were able to obtain only from confidential sources."
Lee said he hoped government officials and journalists would exercise more caution in disclosing damaging speculation.
In the 1990s, Lee was the target of a spying probe at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. He was fired from his job, and news reports said he was suspected of leaking nuclear secrets to China. He was held in solitary confinement for nine months.
But when his case came to trial, the serious charges against Lee were dropped, and a judge apologized to the fired scientist for his treatment at the hands of the government. Lee pleaded guilty to one count of unlawfully downloading classified information.
He then sued the U.S. Energy Department, the Justice Department and the FBI - not for defaming him with false charges, but for having wrongly leaked information from his private files as a government employee.
The Privacy Act forbids the release of such records.
Lee's lawyers suspected that the sources were top officials of the Energy Department, including then-Secretary Bill Richardson and the department's director of counter-intelligence, Notra Trulock. But when questioned under oath, these officials and several others denied leaking information about Lee, according to Lee's lawyers.
They then called on the reporters who wrote about the Lee case and demanded that they reveal the names of the unnamed sources cited in their stories. The reporters refused to reveal who they had spoken to in confidence.
A federal judge ruled that the reporters must "truthfully answer questions" about the identity of their sources. He held them in contempt, imposed $500-a-day fines and threatened them with jail time. However, that order was stayed, pending appeals.
A panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington upheld the judge's order, and the full appeals court split 4-4 on the matter.
The other reporters who were held in contempt were H. Josef Hebert of the AP, James Risen of The New York Times, Walter Pincus of The Washington Post and Pierre Thomas, formerly of CNN and now working for ABC News.
David G. Savage writes for the Los Angeles Times.