Thursday, July 21, 2005

Bush administration opposes shield for journalists


Bush administration opposes shield for journalists

By Patricia Wilson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Bush administration on Wednesday opposed federal legislation to protect journalists from having to reveal confidential sources because it would create "serious impediments" to law enforcement and fighting terrorism.

With a New York Times reporter in jail for refusing to testify before a grand jury probe into the outing of CIA operative Valerie Plame, bills in the Senate and House of Representatives allowing reporters to shield their sources in most cases have gained traction.

But in written testimony provided to a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, U.S. Deputy Attorney General James Comey called the legislation "bad public policy" and warned it would cover "criminal or terrorist organizations that also have media operations ... such as al Qaeda."

"The bill would create serious impediments to the department's ability to effectively enforce the law and fight terrorism," Comey wrote.

Comey did not appear in person, prompting Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California -- and others on the panel -- to call for another hearing to question him about his "rather serious indictment" of the legislation.

Journalists say using anonymous sources is crucial to their work, including exposing government wrongdoing in cases like the Watergate scandal that toppled Richard Nixon's presidency and the printing of the Pentagon Papers on the Vietnam War.


The proposed legislation would require federal prosecutors and courts to exhaust all other avenues to obtain information before compelling news outlets and journalists to testify or produce documents except in cases of potential harm to national security.

Thirty one states and the District of Columbia have shield laws, but Comey rejected any comparison.

"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," he said.

The bipartisan bills would extend to journalists the same sort of privilege that protects the relationship between husband and wife, priest and penitent, lawyer and client, doctor and patient.

In the most recent high profile case, a federal judge jailed Judith Miller of the New York Times for refusing to disclose her source to prosecutors trying to find out who in the Bush administration leaked Plame's identity to the media.

A parade of media witnesses, lawyers and academics predicted the Plame case would have "a chilling effect" on freedom of the press and said the free flow of information to Americans was under threat.

William Safire, a New York Times columnist, compared Miller to a hostage and said he feared retaliation against her if he spoke out too openly.

"I must not anger or upset those who control her incarceration and who repeatedly threaten to pile on with longer punishment as a criminal unless she betrays her principles as a reporter," he said. "Journalists and reporters are not the fingers at the end of the long arm of the law."

Time Magazine reporter Matthew Cooper, who along with Miller faced jail in the CIA leak case until his source gave him personal permission to testify, said the shield law was not about elevating journalists to "some priestly class."

"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," Cooper told the committee.

Comey was not at the hearing because he was substituting for Attorney General Alberto Gonzales at a meeting with House Republican leaders on the Patriot Act, a Justice Department spokeswoman said.