A New York Times journalist was jailed for up to four months for contempt yesterday after she refused to reveal the source in an investigation into the leak of an undercover CIA officer's name.
In a dramatic culmination to a two-year saga, Judith Miller was sent to a Washington DC jail for a term that will last until October, unless she relents and reveals her source.
"There is still a realistic possibility that confinement might cause her to testify," said the judge, Thomas Hogan.
But her fellow defendant, the Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper, avoided the same fate when he agreed to testify in an 11th-hour volte-face.
Mr Cooper told a federal judge that the source had told him "in somewhat dramatic fashion" that he could divulge his identity. "I am prepared to testify. I will comply," Mr Cooper said.
Shortly before the hearing began, Ms Miller, who never actually wrote an article about the CIA agent but did make calls about the story, handed her necklace to her husband and then told the court that she would not reveal her source regardless of how long she was imprisoned.
"If journalists cannot be trusted to guarantee confidentiality, then journalists cannot function, and there cannot be a free press," she said reading a statement to the court shortly before she was taken away. "The right of civil disobedience is based on personal conscience; it is fundamental to our system and it is honoured throughout our history."
Outside the courthouse, the New York Times editor, Bill Keller, said Ms Miller had made a "brave and principled choice".
"Judy Miller made a commitment to her source and she's standing by it," he said. "This is a chilling conclusion to an utterly confounding case."
The controversy stems from the leaking of the identity of a CIA agent, Valerie Plame, in July 2003. Ms Plame's husband, the former ambassador Joseph Wilson, had gone on a CIA-sponsored trip to investigate whether Iraq was seeking to buy uranium from Niger.
Some time after his return, Mr Wilson accused the Bush administration of exaggerating the case for going to war, in a comment article in the New York Times.
Angered by his comments, two unnamed officials reportedly told the columnist Robert Novak that Ms Plame was a CIA operative and had helped arrange her husband's trip to Niger. It is a crime to knowingly divulge the identity of an undercover CIA operative, so when Novak published the claims he sparked a furore over whether an agent and her contacts had been compromised for partisan political purposes. It is believed that Novak has reached a deal with the special prosecutor, which is why he is not being pursued.
In court papers filed this week, the special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald expressed his determination to pursue the case to the end.
"Journalists are not entitled to promise complete confidentiality. No one in America is," he said. He was particularly critical of Ms Miller for what he described as posturing with the support of the New York Times.
"Miller and the New York Times appear to have confused Miller's ability to commit contempt with her legal right to do so," Mr Fitzgerald wrote.
"Much of what appears to motivate Miller to commit contempt is the misguided reinforcement from others (specifically including her publisher) that placing herself above the law can be condoned."
The commentator and Vanity Fair columnist Michael Wolff said yesterday that he believed Ms Miller's imprisonment was not an isolated case. "I think it's a broader attack," he said. "We may be passing through a moment when a reporter's right to protect their sources no matter what is no longer part of the conventional wisdom."
Along with Ms Miller and Mr Cooper, Time Inc was also charged with contempt and threatened with huge fines because it was in possession of Mr Cooper's notes that could be relevant to the case.
Last week the magazine buckled under judicial pressure, against Mr Cooper's wishes, and submitted the relevant documents to the judge. Some emails have shown that one of the people Mr Cooper spoke to was George Bush's right-hand man Karl Rove.
Mr Rove insists that he did not "knowingly" reveal Ms Plame's identity.
The pair made an application for house arrest rather than a term in jail, but their appeal was rejected.
"Forced vacation at a comfortable home is not a compelling form of coercion," Mr Fitzgerald said. Referring to Ms Miller's experience as a war correspondent in Iraq, Mr Fitzgerald added: "Certainly one who can handle the desert in wartime is far better equipped than the average person jailed in a federal facility."