(AP) A federal judge ruled Thursday that The New York Times has a First Amendment privilege to protect the confidentiality of its sources by denying the government phone records in certain instances.
Noting that secrecy in government appears to be on the increase, Judge Robert W. Sweet refused in a 120-page ruling to toss out a lawsuit the newspaper filed last year to stop the Department of Justice from getting records of phone calls between two veteran journalists and sources.
The judge noted that the government can obtain telephone records during a grand jury investigation when the information sought is highly material and relevant and cannot be obtained elsewhere but he said those conditions had not been met.
The government had sought records reflecting confidential communications between journalists Philip Shenon and Judith Miller and their sources from third parties that the newspaper said were unlikely to be interested in challenging its authority.
The justice department had advised the Times that it planned to obtain records of all telephone calls by Shenon and Miller for 20 days in the months immediately following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Times lawyer George Freeman did not immediately return a telephone message requesting comment.
Megan L. Gaffney, a spokeswoman for federal prosecutors in Manhattan, said the office had no comment.
In his ruling, Sweet wrote: “The record before this court has demonstrated that the reporters at issue relied upon the promise of confidentiality to gather information concerning issues of paramount national importance — the nation’s preparedness for the attacks of September 11, the government’s efforts to combat al-Qaida post-September 11, and the risk posed to the American people by biological weapons.
“The government has failed to demonstrate that the balance of the competing interests weighs in its favor,” he added.
The government had told the Times it wanted phone records from Shenon for a probe into a leak by a government employee about a planned raid on the offices of the Global Relief Foundation, an Islamic charity group accused of funding terrorist operations.
The Dec. 14, 2001, raid was not unexpected, and the newspaper had reported on Oct. 1, 2001, that the organization was suspected of providing money and support to terrorist operations, the Times had said in its lawsuit. It added that neither Shenon nor the Times reported on the raid until after it occurred.
The lawsuit had said Miller’s phone records were being sought in connection with an investigation into an alleged leak from a government employee to Miller in late September and early October 2001. It said the alleged leak concerned a government decision to freeze the assets of the Global Relief Foundation and a Dallas-based Islamic charity, the Holy Land Foundation, which has been accused of aiding Hamas.