Washington The U.S. government and five news organizations, including the Los Angeles Times, agreed Friday to pay $1.65 million to former nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee to end a lawsuit claiming his privacy was violated by leaks that portrayed him as a spy.
Lee sued the government, not the media. But he subpoenaed five reporters and demanded that they name the federal officials who spoke to them.
Federal law has few protections for journalists. Every state except one has laws that protect reporters from being forced to disclose their confidential sources in most instances. But the Supreme Court has not recognized such a right under the First Amendment and its protection for freedom of the press. There is no federal shield law.
The settlement reached Friday leaves the issue in limbo. It also leaves unanswered the question of who leaked damaging information about Lee.
The government did not acknowledge any wrongdoing but agreed to pay $895,000 to the physicist. The money, it said, "may only be used" for his legal fees and taxes.
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, for a total of $750,000, to avoid further costs of fighting the case.
"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."
In the late 1990s, Lee became the target of a spying probe at the 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.