Chicago journalists hand over interview tapes
- Obeying a court order, three newspaper reporters reluctantly agreed to provide an Irish terrorism defendant and U.S. authorities with tapes of their interviews with a key witness.
July 8, 2003 — Three Chicago newspaper reporters who interviewed a key witness in an Irish terrorism prosecution handed over their interview tapes on Friday to the Irish defendant and to U.S. authorities who claimed a national security interest in the case.
The reporters had objected to the disclosure but agreed Thursday to obey a federal trial judge’s order to hand over the tapes after their appeal for a stay of that order was rejected.
Abdon Pallasch and Robert C. Herguth, of the Chicago Sun-Times, and Flynn McRoberts, of the Chicago Tribune, interviewed FBI informant David Rupert for a planned book about Rupert’s experiences spying on the Irish Republican Army.
Pallasch and McRoberts originally planned to write the book together, and Herguth joined the project when McRoberts backed out.
Rupert is a witness in a terrorism case against Michael McKevitt, whose trial is underway in Ireland. McKevitt is accused of leading a faction known as Real IRA and murdering 29 people.
McKevitt’s attorneys hope to use the reporters’ tapes to undermine Rupert’s testimony at the trial.
The reporters were not technically subpoenaed, but McKevitt’s attorneys requested, through a procedural device similar to a subpoena, that a U.S. district court order disclosure of the tapes, according to Kathleen L. Roach, attorney for Pallasch and McRoberts.
The reporters objected to the request on the grounds that a reporter’s privilege protects the press from forced disclosure of source materials.
Under Illinois statutory law, a reporter may refuse to disclose source materials unless “all other available sources of information have been exhausted and disclosure of the information is essential to the protection of the public interest involved.”
Federal courts in Illinois have also recognized a qualified, non-statutory privilege based on the First Amendment.
Late Wednesday afternoon, U.S. District Judge Ronald A. Guzman issued an opinion rejecting the reporters’ claim for protection and ordering disclosure.
“[T]he possible onerous effect of disclosure of the taped conversations between Rupert and the [reporters] upon the ability of the news media now and in the future to obtain the cooperation of individuals in gathering news of a sensitive nature is greatly attenuated,” the court wrote. “When weighed against the possible use of this material in a serious criminal trial of an alleged terrorist and the general public interest in fair, thorough, and effective investigations and trials of criminal terrorist activities, the asserted reporter’s privilege here . . . must give way.”
Judge Guzman also granted a request by the U.S. government to review the contents of the tapes before they are handed over to McKevitt’s attorneys. The United States, asserting witness safety and national security concerns, had filed a statement of interest in the case and asked for the opportunity to redact sensitive information from the tapes before they are made public, according to Roach.
Guzman called the government’s desire to prevent against the public disclosure of national security information a “highly compelling interest.”
The reporters had not objected to the U.S. government’s screening of the tapes. Damon E. Dunn, the attorney who represented Herguth, said the reporters were concerned mainly that their tapes would be disclosed at all and did not find the U.S. government’s request for initial review objectionable.
On Thursday, the reporters appealed for a stay from the U.S. Court of Appeals in Chicago (7th Cir.), but the court declined to stay the order. The court told the parties it would issue a written ruling on the applicability of the reporters privilege at a later, unspecified date.
“I think that there’s an insufficient appreciation for what is necessary to ensure that there’s an independent press,” Dunn said of the two courts’ decisions.
The reporters handed over their tape recordings to agents for the Federal Bureau of Investigations on Friday.
(In re Request Order v. Pal-lasch, et al.; Counsel for Abdon M. Pallasch and Flynn McRoberts, Kathleen L. Roach, Sidley Austin Brown & Wood LLP, Chicago, Ill.; Counsel for Robert C. Herguth, Damon E. Dunn, Funkhouser Vegosen Liebman & Dunn Ltd., Chicago, Ill.) — WT
© 2003 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press