WASHINGTON — The Bush administration still opposes a bill to shield reporters from federal efforts to force them to reveal their sources despite sponsors' revisions, a Justice Department official said yesterday.
"History has demonstrated that the protections already in place, including the department's own rigorous internal review of media-subpoena requests, are sufficient," Assistant Attorney General Rachel Brand told the House Judiciary Committee. "We do not believe that the case has been made for any legislation on this subject."
The bill's sponsors said they had added exceptions for imminent threats to national security and bodily harm, among others, to make more palatable to the administration a bill needed to protect the public's right to know about government and other wrongdoing.
Brand added that the bill's broad definition of who is a journalist includes bloggers and thus would pose significant problems for federal investigators. Anyone who does not want to cooperate with prosecutors could post information on the Internet and claim to be covered by the media shield, she said.
"Because the definition must be so broad to capture all legitimate journalists, it captures almost everybody else too," she said.
The legislation, said Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., "is not about protecting reporters. It is about protecting the public's right to know."
The measure would write into federal law a policy already enacted by 32 states and the District of Columbia.
Under it, compelling disclosure would be permitted in certain cases. They include cases where disclosure is necessary to prevent "imminent and actual" harm to national security, as well as imminent death or bodily harm. Compelling disclosure also would be permitted when it is needed to identify a person who has illegally disclosed private health information or trade secrets.
Such exceptions were designed to go further than the Justice Department's own guidelines on compelling reporters to disclose their sources, according to the sponsors.
Not passing it, say news-media advocates, means continuing an administration policy that has resulted in the subpoenas and jailing of journalists who refused prosecutors' demands for the identity of sources — most famously, Judith Miller's jailing for 85 days for failing to reveal who in the Bush administration leaked the identity of CIA agent Valerie Plame.
Whistleblowers are less likely to tell reporters about government and other wrongdoing when they see law enforcement intimidating or coercing journalists, say press advocates. "Chilling" such revelations is not in the public's interest, they say.
"The movement to force journalists to reveal their sources is an attempt to turn the press into an arm of the law," said New York Times magazine writer William Safire. "Don't believe that ordinary citizens as well as public officials won't think twice about trusting a reporter to respect a confidence — it's happening right now as never before."
But Brand said Justice's guidelines already discourage prosecutors from compelling disclosure of source information except in rare cases. Justice has only approved subpoenas seeking confidential-source information from reporters 19 times since 1991, she said.
House and Senate Democratic leaders are said to like the bill, H.R. 2102, but have no plans to advance it, their officials said.