Journalists asked the Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday to back federal legislation to protect reporters from being forced to disclose anonymous sources, with Time Inc.'s editor in chief saying the lack of a federal shield law has led to "chaos."
The hearing came two weeks after New York Times reporter Judith Miller was jailed for refusing to disclose her sources during a probe into the leaking of the name of CIA operative Valerie Plame. Miller remains in jail.
In a surprise move yesterday, Deputy Attorney General James B. Comey canceled his scheduled appearance before the committee, with the Justice Department saying he had to attend a briefing with House Republican leaders about the USA Patriot Act. Comey had submitted testimony saying the bill was "bad public policy" that would impair prosecutions of terrorism and health and safety cases.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) called Comey's testimony "a rather serious indictment of the legislation in front of us, on many points. I think it has to be taken seriously."
The legislation, sponsored by Sens. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) and Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), would establish federal protection for journalists from being forced by the government to disclose the identities of secret sources. The lawmakers modified the measure this week to provide an exception for cases in which there is an imminent threat to national security.
"The absence of federal legislation protecting sources has created extraordinary chaos," Norman Pearlstine, Time Inc.'s editor in chief, told the committee. "The federal courts are in a state of utter disarray about whether a reporter's privilege protecting confidential sources exists."
Pearlstine turned over the confidential notes of Time reporter Matthew Cooper in the Plame investigation after losing a legal battle. Cooper testified under a last-minute waiver of confidentiality from Karl Rove, White House deputy chief of staff.
"The rules of the road are, to put it mildly, quite confusing for a working journalist such as myself in the absence of any clear federal standard," said Cooper, Time's White House correspondent. "Everyone, prosecutors and journalists alike, would benefit from knowing what the rules are."
Pearlstine said the pursuit of reporters' notes by federal investigators has had a "chilling effect" on journalism and that after his decision in the Plame case, other Time correspondents received e-mails from sources saying they no longer trust the magazine.
Deputy Attorney General James B. Comey says a shield law is bad.