A federal judge ordered The New York Times to disclose a columnist’s confidential sources as part of a libel lawsuit filed over the newspaper’s coverage of the 2001 anthrax attacks.
Former Army scientist Steven Hatfill, once identified by authorities as a “person of interest” in the anthrax mailings that killed five people in late 2001, is suing the Times for libel for a series of articles written by columnist Nicholas Kristof.
The order issued Friday by U.S. Magistrate Judge Liam O’Grady requires the newspaper to disclose the identities of three of Kristof’s sources, including two FBI sources who allegedly provided some of the most incriminating information in Kristof’s columns. The order was made public Monday.
The judge said Virginia law gives reporters only limited immunity from disclosing sources, and that privilege is outweighed by Hatfill’s right to proceed with his lawsuit.
The court “understands the need for a reporter to be able to credibly pledge confidentiality to his sources,” O’Grady wrote. “But that privilege must be balanced against the rights of a plaintiff.”
Times spokeswoman Catherine Mathis said the paper would appeal the ruling.
Hatfill’s lawyers said they need to question the sources to see if Kristof’s reporting was accurate. The FBI sources told the Times that Hatfill was one of a limited number of people with the access and technical expertise to manufacture the anthrax and that he failed several lie-detector tests.
The FBI agents “are the only sources who would have the type of inside information on which the columns claim to rely,” said Charles Kimmett, one of Hatfill’s lawyers.
Hatfill was a a physician and bioterrorism expert who worked at the Army’s infectious disease laboratory at Fort Detrick, Md., in the late 1990s.
The Justice Department refuses to discuss Hatfill but has recently acknowledged that the strain of anthrax used in the attacks was accessible to a much wider circle of people than initially reported.