Trying to take a positive step in the face of two controversies over untoward government intrusion, the White House has called on Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, to reintroduce a bill that would give more protections to the press when it comes to keeping their sources confidential, a White House spokesman said Wednesday.
“The White House has been in contact with Sen. Schumer and we’re glad to see that that legislation will be reintroduced because he strongly feels that we should have these stronger protections for journalists in place,” said Jay Carney, the White House press secretary.
The move comes in the wake of revelations earlier this week that the Justice Department used secret subpoenas to seize press phone records from at least 20 Associated Press reporters and editors in an effort to find out who leaked them news that the CIA had foiled a terrorist plot in Yemen aimed at detonating a bomb on a U.S.-bound plane. Late last week, news also broke that the Internal Revenue Service had singled out conservative groups for special scrutiny.
“We were planning to resurrect it in the last day or two, and this morning, coincidentally, the White House called us — seriously, coincidentally — and said why don’t you introduce it?” Mr. Schumer told reporters Wednesday afternoon.
Shield laws aim to protect journalists from being forced to comply with law enforcement requests for information about their sources and their investigations. Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, a Republican and a former broadcast journalist, long pushed for stronger shield laws with bipartisan help while serving in Congress before becoming governor.
In 2009, a version that included exemptions for national security passed the Senate Judiciary Committee but was never scheduled for a floor vote. Mr. Obama supported the bill but did not throw any weight behind promoting its passage.
Mr. Carney said Mr. Obama’s support for stronger protections for journalists does not conflict with his concerns about national security leaks.
“There’s a criminal investigation [into the leak to the AP] as is entirely appropriate,” Mr. Carney said. “The president’s support for this kind of media shield law is well documented and long standing.
“He is very mindful of the national security implications. … This was a particularly egregious national security leak and this is a very serious matter. It can harm our national security and endanger the lives of Americans overseas.
While Mr. Schumer said it is unclear whether the bill would have prevented the Justice Department from obtaining the records, he said it would force prosecutors to convince a judge that the information at issue would “prevent or mitigate an act of terrorism or harm to national security.”
It also would have compelled “concurrent” notice of a subpoena to the AP unless law enforcement could convince a court that special circumstances warranted a delay in the disclosure.
“This kind of law would balance national security needs against the public’s right to the free flow of information,” Mr. Schumer said in a statement. “At minimum, our bill would have ensured a fairer, more deliberate process in this case.
“Everyone would have felt a lot better had there been an independent arbiter as to whether any information should be required of the AP, and how much, how broad the request should be,” he added.
He acknowledged that the shield law bill didn’t have “a lot of impetus” in 2009 to consume Senate floor time, but predicted the unfolding scandal about the government’s seizure of AP phone records would change the dynamic.
“I think what has just happened in the last few days is going to give it that impetus,” Mr. Schumer said, noting that he planned to consult with Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat, and Majority Leader Harry Reid and “try to get this bill to the floor as soon as possible.”