Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain made headlines recently by announcing his support for a Federal reporter shield law. The proposal, passed by the House but languishing in the Senate, would grant journalists immunity from prosecution for refusing to reveal their sources in national security leak investigations unless a judge determines that the information sought is "essential" to the outcome of the case. A judge would also have to weigh the potential damage to newsgathering efforts against the public interest before deciding to force a reporter to identify his source.
McCain, who has a somewhat less adversarial relationship with the press than most Republicans, told an Associated Press meeting last week that he would support the pending Senate bill. That position puts him at odds with the Bush Administration, which sent several letters in opposition
to the bill to the Senate in recent weeks. Five Cabinet officials wrote to the Senate to caution against passing the shield law, including Attorney General Michael Mukasey, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff, Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell, and Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman. The secretaries all pointed out potential consequences to national security investigations in the event that the law is passed. In their letter, Mukasey and McConnell informed the Senate that they would recommend the president veto the bill should it be passed.
Gates' letter lays out perhaps the strongest case against the proposal. He says that passing the law might actually lead to more leaks of classified information, not less. Gates argues that the classification of protected persons under the law would be too broad, leading to people believing that they are protected and providing information they otherwise may not have revealed. He also expressed concern that the law would give hostile foreign powers easy access to U.S. intelligence information by simply recruiting American journalists as agents. Chertoff and Bodman made similar arguments against the law in their letters.
While 49 states have adopted versions of a journalist shield law, the Bush Administration is right to oppose a Federal one. No state maintains secret documentation on the scale of the Federal government, if at all; and the consequences of secret leaks at the Federal level are far greater. Had their been a Federal shield law during the CIA leak investigation, for instance, the public might never have found out who the leaker that exposed Valerie Plame was. At the time, liberals decried that leak as potentially devastating to U.S. national security because it identified an allegedly covert agent of the government. Now, however, Congress is pushing for a law that would have protected the reporters and their sources in that famous case. Sen. McCain should check with his military and intelligence advisers again, and rethink his support for the bill.
, John McCain