In damage limitation mode following revelations that the Justice Department has been spying on AP reporters’ phone records, the White House Wednesday pushed for a federal media shield law.
According to press secretary Jay Carney, the president asked Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., to reintroduce legislation that would help reporters protect the identity of confidential sources and help them ask a federal judge to quash subpoenas for their phone records.
The very same legislation was introduced in 2009 by Schumer, but the Obama administration refused to support it in light of WikiLeaks’ release of thousands of government documents. Now, on the back of a scandal drawing broad and fierce criticism, the White House is pushing the bill. The bill that will be reintroduced includes the caveat that the media shield will exclude reporters who publish leaks deemed to cause “significant harm” to national security. A loophole no doubt wide enough to leave whistle-blowers open to surveillance and persecution.
Via the New York Times:
In a statement, Mr. Schumer referred to the A.P. subpoena: “This kind of law would balance national security needs against the public’s right to the free flow of information. At minimum, our bill would have ensured a fairer, more deliberate process in this case.”
It is not clear whether such a law would have changed the outcome of the subpoena involving The A.P. But it might have reduced the chances that the Justice Department would have demanded the records in secret, without any advance notice to the news organization, and it may have allowed a judge to review whether the scope of the request was justified by the facts.
Under the 2009 bill, which was negotiated between the newspaper industry, the White House and the Judiciary Committee, the scope of protection for reporters seeking to shield the identities of their confidential sources or the calling records showing with whom they had communicated would vary according to whether it was a civil case, an ordinary criminal case or a national security case.
The most protection would be given to civil cases, in which litigants seeking to force reporters to testify or seeking their information would first have to exhaust other means of obtaining the information before making the request. The burden would be on the information seekers to show why their need for the information outweighed the public’s interest in unfettered news gathering.