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A federal shield law is needed, but that alone won’t absolve Obama for secret subpoenas on journalists.
Sunday, May 19, 2013
Embarrassed by revelations of his administration’s flagrant intrusion into press freedoms, President Obama last week sought to squelch the bad publicity with an announcement that he still supports longdormant legislation establishing a federal shield law.
The law, which would protect reporters from being forced to reveal confidential sources, is worth resuscitating. But it’s a tattered and inadequate fig leaf for the embattled president. The proposed law is riddled with loopholes, and it’s impossible to assess whether it would have prevented the Department of Justice from snooping through journalists’ phone records because administration officials have refused to discuss how they obtained subpoenas in secret.
Before an Associated Press report last May, only a handful of federal officials knew about an operation that foiled an airline bombing plot by infiltrating an al-Qaida cell in Yemen. Rather than focus on internal leaks, DOJ sifted through logs for 20 phone lines, including those for Associated Press bureaus in Washington, New York and Connecticut as well as home and cellphones of individual reporters. In essence, federal lawyers were allowed to peer over the shoulders of more than 100 journalists working on stories light years outside of DOJ’s jurisdiction.
Most states, not including Virginia, have shield laws, but they do not cover federal investigations. The law backed by Obama would do so and would secure for news organizations an opportunity to appeal subpoenas, a courtesy not extended to the AP. But the bill would allow federal attorneys to delay or deny notice under overly broad exemptions, including cases where disclosure might hamper an investigation.
Obama should strengthen the legislation, not just lend his name to it. But to truly demonstrate his respect for an independent press, he must provide a full accounting of his attorneys’ unconscionable meddling when they thought no one was looking.
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