WASHINGTON – The Bush administration is pushing for the Senate to drop a media shield law that officials say could jeopardize national security, launching a Department of Justice Web site on Thursday aimed at drawing support for administration proposals instead.
It hasn't been a secret that the administration doesn't have much affection for the media shield bills in the House and Senate. Officials often cite national security concerns as a reason to object to the bill and the general concept of media shield, which in the case of the Senate bill would not offer immunity for journalists but would give judges the discretion to assign a "public interest" value to certain news stories based on information from confidential sources.
Supporters of the media shield bills say they want to provide protection to journalists who — by necessity, according to some news organizations — cite anonymous sources in reporting sensitive stories. It is an attempt by lawmakers in both bodies to stem what they say is a tide of judges forcing journalists into court, fining or even jailing them in an attempt to get to sources of government leaks.
Last fall, the House approved its version of the media shield law. The Senate has yet to vote on the Free Flow of Information Act, which was passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Sens. Patrick Leahy and Arlen Specter, the chairman and ranking Republican of the judiciary panel, say the bill will protect journalists who would otherwise face serious charges for trying to protect sources. They have urged Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to bring the bill to a vote.
"We need to protect the relationship between reporters and their sources and to strike a proper balance between (a) the need to maintain the free flow of information to journalists and, through a free press, to the public, and (b) the need for effective law enforcement and national security," the lawmakers wrote last month in a joint letter to Reid and McConnell.
"Scores of reporters have been questioned by federal prosecutors about their sources, notes and reports in recent years, and there is definitely a chilling effect as a result," the lawmakers wrote.
But a joint letter written by Attorney General Michael Mukasey and Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell, as well as letters by Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, say the proposed law goes beyond its intent.
The administration letters, which appear on the new Justice Department media shield Web site, say the legislation gives judges the decision over whether national security is compromised and extends coverage beyond journalists.
"These investigations are integral to our mission, yet the sought-after information is often volatile and available only within a very limited timeframe. The proposed bill erects significant evidentiary burdens to obtaining critical information from anyone who can claim to be a journalist, including bloggers and communications service providers, such as Internet service providers. These roadblocks delay the collection of critical information and ensure that criminals have opportunities to avoid detection, continue their potentially dangerous operations, and further obfuscate their illegal activities," Chertoff wrote Thursday in matching letters to Reid, McConnell, Leahy, Specter and Sens. Joe Lieberman and Susan Collins, who run the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee.
The bill is "both unwise and unnecessary," wrote Mukasey and McConnell in letters sent Wednesday. "Unwise because the statutory privilege created by this legislation would work a significant change in existing federal law with potentially dramatic consequences for our ability to protect the national security and investigate other crimes; and unnecessary because all evidence indicates that the free flow of information has continued unabated in the absence of a federal reporter's privilege."
FOX News' Ian McCaleb contributed to this report.