WASHINGTON A Senate committee decided yesterday to push ahead with legislation shielding reporters from being forced to reveal their sources in federal court, despite objections from the federal law enforcement and intelligence community.
Lt. Gen. Ronald L. Burgess, acting principal deputy director of national intelligence, and Brian A. Benczkowski, principal deputy assistant attorney general, in letters objected to the bill being considered by the Senate Judiciary Committee, which would create the first federal shield law for journalists.
Under the measure, federal courts would join 32 states and the District of Columbia in giving reporters protection from being forced to reveal confidential sources, except in certain cases.
The bill, titled the Free Flow of Information Act, has support from more than 50 news organizations, and is the result of a compromise between Republicans Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and Richard Lugar of Indiana, and Democrats Charles Schumer of New York and Christopher Dodd of Connecticut.
A final vote in committee on S. 2035 could come as early as next week.
Schumer said the bill balanced the needs for safety and freedom.
''Central to security is the ability of the government to get information that will bring a criminal to justice and prevent harm to our nation,'' he said. ''Central to freedom is a vibrant and active press, which can gather news from all sources, including confidential ones.''
But Burgess and Benczkowski warned that making it harder for the government to track down where leaks are could endanger national security.
The bill ''would impose significant limitations upon, and in some cases would completely eviscerate, the ability of federal prosecutors to investigate and prosecute serious crimes, while creating significant national security risks,'' Benczkowski said.
''Press reports on U.S. intelligence activities have been a valuable source of intelligence to our adversaries,'' Burgess said, in a letter read by Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz.
Kyl originally attributed the letter to Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell.
Statistics from the Justice Department show that 19 subpoenas have been issued for source-related material since 1992, and only four have been approved since 2001.
''This is not some rampant problem that requires us to ride to the rescue of reporters,'' Kyl said.
Kyl failed in his attempts to amend the bill to make it easier for prosecutors to force reporters to reveal sources in criminal or intelligence cases.
Leahy said just because information is classified doesn't mean it affects national security. ''We've had press releases from the White House that have been classified,'' Leahy said.
One of the exemptions to the privilege comes when investigators are tracking acts of terrorism, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., had the bill amended to ensure acts of terrorism against other countries would not be protected. Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., also had the bill amended to keep accused spies, agents of foreign countries and terrorists from claiming journalistic privileges.
The House Judiciary Committee passed its own bill in August.