WASHINGTON -- A reporter for The New York Times was held in contempt yesterday by a federal judge and faces possible jail time for refusing to divulge confidential sources to prosecutors investigating the leak of an undercover CIA officer's identity.
US District Judge Thomas F. Hogan ordered reporter Judith Miller jailed until she agrees to testify about her sources before a grand jury, but said she could remain free while pursuing an appeal. Miller could be jailed up to 18 months.
Miller and her lawyer, Floyd Abrams, said the ruling undermines the ability of reporters to do their jobs.
''The ability of journalists to give their word, and to keep their word, that they will not reveal their sources is at the heart of journalism," Abrams said.
Hogan, calling the case ''a classic confrontation of conflicting interests," cited Supreme Court rulings that reporters do not have absolute First Amendment protection from being compelled to testify before grand juries about confidential sources. While 31 states have laws shielding reporters' sources, no such protections exist in the federal system.
The judge said there was ample evidence that US Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald of Chicago, the special prosecutor in the CIA leak case, had exhausted other avenues for obtaining key testimony before issuing subpoenas to Miller and several other reporters. There was no evidence prosecutors were engaging in a ''fishing expedition" with reporters, Hogan added.
''The special counsel has made a limited, deferential approach to the press in this matter," Hogan said. ''Ms. Miller has no right to refuse to answer the questions she now refuses to answer."
Fitzgerald is investigating whether a crime was committed when someone leaked the identity of CIA officer Valerie Plame, whose name was published by syndicated columnist Robert Novak on July 14, 2003.
Abrams said that next week he would begin the process of appealing Hogan's ruling to the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. He and Miller both noted that, though she gathered material for a story about Plame, she never wrote one.
''I think it's really frightening when journalists can be put in jail for doing their job effectively," said Miller.