Senate Panel Considers Reporters' Shield Law

Most state have laws protecting journalists from having to reveal their confidential sources. But efforts to get a federal version have been stalled for years. The Senate Judiciary Committee takes up the issue Thursday. Sponsors say the Obama administration is resistant to the measure.

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Most state have laws that protect journalists from revealing their confidential sources. But efforts to get a federal law have been stalled for years. Now there's a new push, and a Senate panel takes up the issue today. Sponsors of this so-called media shield law are finding that the new administration in the White House is resisting, much like the old administration. NPR's Audie Cornish reports.

AUDIE CORNISH: Since 1999, at least 19 journalists have faced subpoenas from federal prosecutors over their confidential sources. Four have been jailed for not giving them up. It's not very many, but it's enough for Democrat Senator Sheldon Whitehouse.

Senator SHELDON WHITEHOUSE (Democrat, Rhode Island): I think it's very important that we try to solve this problem here in Congress with a, you know, legislative decision-making process rather than wait for reporters over and over again to have to be imprisoned or have an ankle bracelet put on them.

CORNISH: Whitehouse is former U.S. attorney and member of the Judiciary Committee, which is considering legislation to create a reporter shield law. The bill would protect reporters from having to reveal who's supplying them with information, except to prevent an act of terrorism or save someone at risk of imminent death.

It would be up to federal judges to decide when national security is at risk. Bill cosponsor and Pennsylvania Democrat Arlen Specter says it would give prosecutors and journalists a roadmap for dealing with leaks by anonymous sources, the kind of leaks that led to such high profile stories as prisoner abuse in Iraq and the mistreatment of soldiers at the Walter Reed Medical Center.

Senator ARLEN SPECTER (Democrat, Pennsylvania): It ought to be up to the court to decide the conflict without having the executive branch having unilateral control simply to make an assertion that national security is involved.

CORNISH: But the Obama administration, like the Bush administration before it, wants judges to defer to the Justice Department when it comes to identifying potential security risks. That disagreement has slowed negotiations to a crawl in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Ms. LUCY DALGLISH (Executive Director, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press): This has been a shock. The resistance from the administration has, quite honestly, been a shock.

CORNISH: Lucy Dalglish is head of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

Ms. DALGLISH: The president is a lawyer. He's on the record saying he believes judges can make these types of decisions, so I just don't understand why he's going back on it now.

CORNISH: Her group was among 70 news organizations, including NPR, who wrote the committee in support of a media shield bill. They back lawmakers who want to give judges the stronger hand in determining national security concerns.

But while Dalglish and free speech advocates may be surprised at the Obama administration's approach, there are many others who aren't - Ken Wainstein, for instance, who ran the Justice Department's National Security Division under President Bush.

Mr. KEN WAINSTEIN (Former Justice Department Official): I think, in the broadest sense, national security is not a party issue. What we're seeing with the debate right now is a recognition that in situations where you have legitimately cases and potential significant harm to national security, the executive branch needs the latitude to pursue investigations and prosecutions to stop that kind of leak.

CORNISH: Wainstein says shield laws might work fine for states, but on the federal level, national security concerns should take precedence.

Mr. WAINSTEIN: It's very difficult for a judge who is not part of the executive branch and not in the midst of intelligence operations and international or diplomatic relations to really understand the implications of a leak of a particular piece of classified information.

CORNISH: Shield law advocates say a weak bill could have a chilling effect on potential sources if journalists can't guarantee them anonymity. They argue that could hurt the ability of reporters to unearth stories of government wrongdoing.

Meanwhile, the bill's Senate sponsors say that after watching similar measures stall session after session, they're not going to give up negotiating with this White House just yet.

Audie Cornish, NPR News, the Capitol.

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