Wednesday, July 20, 2005

The Bush administration yesterday opposed any federal shield bill that would protect journalists who refuse to reveal their confidential sources from prosecution.

Legislation before both the House and Senate would grant protection to reporters intent on exercising their First Amendment rights.

Deputy Attorney General James B. Comey, however, dismissed the legislation as “bad public policy” in the high-stakes age of terrorism.

“The bill would create serious impediments to the department’s ability to effectively enforce the law and fight terrorism,” Mr. Comey noted in written testimony provided to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Protection for journalists could also be put to unsavory use by “criminal or terrorist organizations which have media operations,” including al Qaeda, he warned.

Still, Sen. Richard G. Lugar and Rep. Mike Pence, the Indiana Republicans who have introduced the bipartisan Free Flow of Information Act, maintain that the proposed law does not offer absolute immunity to reporters who could affect national security by protecting sources.

“It simply gives journalists certain rights and abilities to seek sources and report appropriate information without fear of intimidation or imprisonment,” Mr. Pence said yesterday, comparing reporters to doctors or clergy who also must maintain confidences.

The issue was highlighted July 6 after New York Times reporter Judith Miller was jailed for not revealing who told her the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame. Time magazine writer Matthew Cooper opted to reveal his source and avoid incarceration.

“Without whistle-blowers who feel they can come forward with a degree of confidence, we might never have known the extent of the Watergate scandal or Enron’s deceptions or events that needed to be exposed,” Mr. Cooper said during an appearance before the Senate committee yesterday.

Thirty-one states and the District offer some degree of legal protection for reporters with anonymous sources. Risks elevate, however, on a national level.

“None of the states deals with classified information in the way that the federal government does, and no state is tasked with defending the nation as a whole or conducting international diplomacy,” Mr. Comey pointed out.

Lawmakers are not ready to give up. Already, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, has called for another hearing to question Mr. Comey’s “serious indictment” of the proposed law.

Journalists are also up at arms and eager to protect their role as public watchdog. Such news organizations as the Radio-Television News Directors Association and the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) have endorsed a national shield law.

“If journalists must risk jail every time they receive information in confidence, the sources of that information will dry up,” said Andy Alexander, Washington bureau chief for Cox Newspapers and a member of ASNE, on the day Mrs. Miller went to jail. “The public is the real loser in this sad saga.”

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