Skip to main content

Bush Administration Continues Fight vs. Federal Shield Law

The Bush administration is ramping up its opposition to a federal shield law, including firing off letters from top officials threatening a veto and even adding a Web site to host those letters and other information.

News outlets have been pushing for the Free Flow of Information Act, which would protect reporters from being compelled to reveal sources with threats of jail time and fines, with exceptions for some types of information and in cases of national security, including to prevent future acts of terrorism.

Most states already have shield laws or case law protecting reporters and their sources, but the federal government has strongly resisted following suit.

The administration, which has fought the bill from the outset, argued that it is unwise as it would hamper investigations into crimes and impair its ability to protect national security and unnecessary because, Attorney General Michael Mukasey argued in a letter to numerous legislators, "all evidence indicates that the free flow of information has continued unabated in the absence of a federal reporter's privilege."

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff added his voice to the administration’s concerns in a letter to key legislators. Chertoff used some pretty strong words, telling them that the bill would be "disastrous" and make the country both less free and less safe "by subverting the enforcement of criminal laws."

He opined that protections would be extended to "anyone who can claim to be a journalist, including bloggers."

Journalists have been trying to get a federal shield law passed for decades. This most recent attempt was thought to have the best chance yet.

Lucy Dalglish, executive director for one of those groups, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, still thinks so, pointing out that her side already compromised big-time on the carve-out for national security.

"Part of me is just baffled by the resistance by [the Department of] Justice and other agencies. As far as I am concerned, they have won," she said, adding that it is better to have something than no bill at all. "All prosecutors have to do is burp out the words, 'national security,' and they will get what they want," she said, the words spilling out.

The bill does allow news organizations to try to demonstrate to the judge that the interest in reporting the news trumped national-security concerns, "but I can't imagine a judge not deferring to the U.S. attorney on that," Dalglish said.