WASHINGTON - A federal judge held a reporter for Time magazine in contempt of court yesterday for refusing to testify before a grand jury investigating the leak of the identity of a covert CIA officer.
In an order issued July 20 but not made public until yesterday, U.S. District Judge Thomas F. Hogan ruled that Matthew Cooper of Time and Meet the Press host Tim Russert were required to testify "regarding alleged conversations they had with a specified executive branch official."
NBC News issued a statement saying that Russert already had been interviewed under oath by prosecutors on Saturday under an agreement to avoid a protracted court fight. The interview concerned a July 2003 phone conversation with Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, Lewis "Scooter" Libby.
Time and Cooper did not agree to be interviewed and intend to appeal the judge's ruling, said Managing Editor Jim Kelly. If Time loses, Cooper could be jailed under Hogan's order until he agrees to appear and the magazine could be fined $1,000 a day.
"We are disappointed in the decision," Kelly said. "We don't think a journalist should be required to give up a confidential source. We're going to appeal it as far as it goes."
Neal Shapiro, president of NBC News, said the network agrees that forcing reporters to testify about their sources is "contrary to the First Amendment's guarantee of a free press." Shapiro said Russert answered "only limited questions" about the conversation with Libby "without revealing any information he learned in confidence."
The subpoenas of Russert and Cooper were issued by U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald of Chicago, who was appointed as a special prosecutor in the leak case. Hogan denied the claims by the two journalists that they were protected by the Constitution from having to testify.
"There have been no allegations whatsoever that this grand jury is acting in bad faith or with the purpose of harassing these two journalists," Hogan wrote in an 11-page ruling.
The investigation concerns the leak last summer to syndicated columnist Robert Novak of the identity of CIA officer Valerie Plame. Disclosure of an undercover official's identity can be a felony.
Plame's name appeared in Novak's column on July 14 last year, about a week after her husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, published a newspaper opinion piece criticizing President Bush's claim in the 2003 State of the Union address that Iraq had tried to obtain uranium from Niger.
The CIA sent Wilson to Niger to check the allegation, and he concluded that it was unfounded. Novak wrote that Plame had suggested her husband for the mission, a claim that Plame and Wilson have denied.
NBC said Russert told Fitzgerald in the interview that he did not know Plame's name or her identity as a CIA officer, and that he did not provide that information to Libby. The statement said Libby had told the FBI about his conversation with Russert and requested that it be disclosed.
In June, prosecutors interviewed a reporter for The Washington Post, Glenn Kessler, about two conversations he had with Libby in July 2003. Kessler has said he told prosecutors that Libby did not mention Plame, Wilson or the CIA-backed trip to Niger, and that he testified only because Libby signed a waiver releasing Kessler from any promise of confidentiality.
A number of Bush administration officials have appeared before the grand jury or have been interviewed by prosecutors and the FBI.
Bush was interviewed June 25 at the White House, and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell was interviewed this month.