House passes journalist shield law -- Bush promises veto

Associated Press via Editor and Publisher

Saying the free flow of information must not be choked off, the House on Tuesday took up a media shield bill to protect the confidentiality of reporters' sources in most federal court cases. The White House, warning that the bill would encourage leaks of classified information, threatened a veto.

The House overwhelmingly approved the bill Tuesday. The measure was passed on a bipartisan vote, 398-21, with 176 Republicans joining virtually all Democrats to support the bill.

The White House issued a statement Tuesday afternoon saying President Bush's advisers would recommend he veto the legislation unless it's changed, claiming the bill is too broad and could harm national security.

"It is likely that the legislation will encourage more leaks of classified information by giving leakers such a formidable shield behind which they can hide," the statement read.

Under the bill, reporters could still be forced to disclose information on sources if that information is needed to prevent acts of terrorism or harm to the national security.

That wasn't enough for the White House, which said the privileges given to reporters "could severely frustrate — an in some cases completely eviscerate — the ability to investigate acts of terrorism or threats to national security."

Advocates of press freedom have pushed the issue this year in the wake of several high-profile cases, including subpoenas for reporters to testify in a probe into the leak of a CIA operative's identity.

Supporters pointed to press reports on Abu Ghraib, clandestine CIA prisons and shoddy conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center as examples where source confidentiality was crucial.

More than 50 news outlets, including The AP, support the bill, which faces an uncertain future in the Senate.

Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., a conservative who cosponsored the bill with Rep. Rick Boucher, D-Va., said he promoted the bill because "I believe the only check on government power in real time is a free and independent press." The act, he said, "is not about protecting reporters, it's about protecting the public's right to know."

The Justice Department and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence are on record as opposing the legislation, saying it would make it nearly impossible to enforce federal laws pertaining to the unauthorized release of classified information. Justice also said the bill's definition of who is a journalist is too broad.

But backers said the bill was crafted to strike a balance between the need to protect a reporters' sources and the need for courts to see critical pieces of information.

Exceptions to the reporter shield are allowed to prevent an act of terrorism, apprehend the source of a past terrorist attack or stop harm to national security. Disclosures can also be ordered to prevent imminent death or significant bodily harm, or to identify a person who has revealed trade secrets or information involving personal medical or financial records.

The final bill consists of "a lot of compromising," said Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. "This has required enormous amounts of time and money and effort" by media and nonprofit groups. Pushing a legislative agenda, she said, "does not come natural to us."

The impetus, she said, was more than 40 cases in the past three years where reporters have been asked to identify sources or testify in federal criminal and civil cases.

"America is not a country where journalists should be jailed," said Clint Brown, national president of the Society of Professional Journalists. "This bill will allow the working press and those acting as journalists to serve society without fear of reprisal or intrusion from overzealous prosecutors."

Former New York Times reporter Judith Miller was jailed for 85 days in 2005 for refusing to identify which Bush administration officials had talked with her about CIA agent Valerie Plame.

The Justice Department, in questioning the need for the legislation, said it had approved the issuances of subpoenas to reporters seeking confidential source information in only 19 cases between 1992 and 2006.

The Supreme Court in 1972 ruled that journalist-source relationships were not protected under the Constitution, and currently reporters have no privileges to refuse to appear and testify in federal legal proceedings. The situation is different in state courts, with 33 states having media shield statutes and 16 others with judicial precedents protecting reporters.

A similar bill, sponsored by Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee earlier this month, but it's uncertain if the full Senate will take it up in the final legislative weeks of this year.

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The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey