Judiciary Committee Considers Reporter Shield Law

The Senate Judiciary Committee considers legislation that would guarantee the right of reporters to protect their confidential sources. Republican Sen. Richard Lugar says that a "shield law" is needed, because whistleblowers may fear to come forward, if reporters are forced to reveal their sources.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

The Senate Judiciary Committee is considering legislation that would give reporters the right to protect their sources. As members heard testimony yesterday regarding the shield law, a reporter sits in a federal jail for refusing to reveal her sources about who leaked the identity of an undercover CIA agent. NPR's Brian Naylor reports.

BRIAN NAYLOR reporting:

It's not often that journalists are invited to appear before lawmakers to plead their case, so Matthew Cooper of Time magazine could be excused for seeming a bit uncomfortable in the formal hearing room of the Senate Judiciary Committee. This has already been an uncomfortable few months for Cooper. He was threatened with jail for refusing to tell a special prosecutor who leaked him information about the identity of Valerie Plame. Then his Time magazine superiors handed over his notes, revealing Cooper's source to be White House adviser Karl Rove.

Meanwhile, New York Times reporter Judith Miller spends her second week behind bars. Thirty-one states and the District of Columbia give reporters varying degrees of protection from being forced to reveal their sources. Cooper told lawmakers it can be confusing.

Mr. MATTHEW COOPER (Time Magazine): Right now if I pick up the phone and call a senator or his or her staff or a civil servant, and they say, `Don't quote me on this, but' or `Don't identify me, but,' I can't really know what I'm getting myself into.

NAYLOR: Lawmakers are trying to clarify the rules with federal legislation that would give reporters the right to protect their sources in most cases. Indiana Republican Richard Lugar, whose home state gives reporters broad protections, says the current climate is having a chilling effect.

Senator RICHARD LUGAR (Republican, Indiana): Unfortunately, the free flow of information to citizens of the United States is inhibited. Over two dozen reporters were served or threatened with jail sentences last year in at least four different federal jurisdictions for refusing to reveal confidential sources.

NAYLOR: Backers say the measure isn't about giving reporters special rights. Lugar said if reporters can be forced to reveal their confidential sources, whistle-blowers may fear to come forward. Another journalist on the panel, William Safire of The New York Times, said he was forced to restrain his remarks.

Mr. WILLIAM SAFIRE (The New York Times): I'm seething inside because I cannot tell you what I really think of the unchecked abuse of prosecutorial discretion. For the first time, I have to pull my punches. The reason is I am afraid. I'm afraid of retaliation against federal prisoner 45570083, whose byline in The New York Times is Judith Miller.

NAYLOR: Deputy Attorney General James Comey was scheduled to testify yesterday but pulled out at the last minute to meet with House leaders on renewing the Patriot Act. The measure's sponsors had scaled back the proposed shield law to allow prosecutors to compel testimony from journalists if it would prevent, quote, "imminent and actual harm to national security." But in his prepared testimony, Comey said the proposed shield law was still bad policy. He said it would create serious impediments to the Justice Department's ability to, quote, "effectively enforce the law and fight terrorism." Brian Naylor, NPR News, the Capitol.

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