Law Aimed at Protecting Reporters and Their Sources Has Slim Chances This Year

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Two Republican co-sponsors of a bill to shield reporters from having to disclose news sources refused Tuesday to give up hope for the legislation despite Justice Department opposition and limited time left for congressional approval.

Sen. Richard Lugar and Rep. Mike Pence, both Indiana Republicans, acknowledged at a National Press Club lunch that their proposed Free Flow of Information Act faces an uphill struggle with only a few months left in the 109th Congress.

Nevertheless, Lugar said, "We are still optimistic."

And Pence disclosed that the first hearings by a House committee would be Sept. 14.

The bill still needs approval by a Senate committee and the full Senate, a House hearing, House committee approval, full House approval, probably a conference to resolve differences, final votes on both chambers and President Bush's signature — all before Congress wraps up this fall, Lugar said.

And "probably some more compromises" will be necessary, Lugar said, without specifying what they might be. The coalition of news media companies backing the bill was already shaken by amendments sponsors accepted, particularly in the Senate version.

"We want to be helpful but at some point you risk giving everything away," Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said in an interview.

Dalglish said her own group dropped its 35-year-old insistence on an absolute privilege for reporters to withhold source identities in order to support an amendment to the House version that would allow courts to compel reporters' testimony when necessary to prevent "imminent and actual harm to the national security." She didn't see room for more compromise in the Senate version which also could force testimony relating to guilt or innocence, death or bodily harm, eyewitness accounts and unauthorized disclosure of properly classified information.

Just Tuesday morning, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., told Pence the panel's Internet and courts subcommittee would hold a hearing Sept. 14, the first in the House since the bill was introduced last year.

The Senate Judiciary committee held two hearings, spurred by furor over imprisonment of New York Times reporter Judith Miller for 85 days until she agreed to tell a federal prosecutor about her sources in the leak of the identity of CIA official Valerie Plame.

A Justice Department representative testified there was no need for the bill. Miller, however, told the panel that without it reporters would no longer get information from government and corporate whistleblowers fearful of losing their jobs.

The Senate panel twice scheduled meetings to act on the bill but failed to get a quorum each time. Lugar said one problem passing the bill was the frequency of news stories — like those that revealed classified government monitoring of financial transactions — that re-ignited controversy even though "they have nothing to do with the merits of our bill."