AG Holder Supports a Shield Law for the Press

History shows tough road ahead for journalist protection.

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As lawmakers on Capitol Hill grilled Attorney General Eric Holder over why the Justice Department had secretly subpoenaed phone records of reporters and editors at the Associated Press, America's top lawman made a surprising defense of journalists and the secrets they keep.

"The focus should be on those people who break their oath and put the American people at risk not the reporters," Holder said.

[READ: Holder on Seizing of AP Phone Records: 'I Recused Myself'

During a House Judiciary Committee hearing, members of the committee called on Congress to pass legislation that would make it harder for the federal government to subpoena reporters for source information. The so-called "Free Flow of Information Act" would restrict the government from forcing reporters to disclose their sources or key documents unless a court rules that the security risks outweigh the reporter's right to protect their source's identity.

The White House called on Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y,. to reintroduce his federal shield law in the Senate Wednesday.

 

Varying versions of the legislation have been introduced on numerous occasions in Congress. In 2009, the Democratic-controlled House actually passed the bill by unanimous consent. And the legislation sailed through the Senate Judiciary Committee as lawmakers hammered out who should be covered under the law and what national security exceptions should be made.

But in 2010, classified documents released about the war in Afghanistan on the site WikiLeaks undermined congressional efforts as members began to question whether giving bloggers and reporters increasing protections was wise.

"That really threw a wrench into the whole thing," says Gregg Leslie, the legal defense director for Reporters Committee, a group that works to increase press freedom.

After that, Leslie says the healthcare law became the focus and efforts to pass a federal shield law fell to the wayside.

[BLOG BUZZ: Blogosphere Reacts Harshly to Seizure of AP Phone Records]

Even in 2012, when it seemed like a tsunami of Obama administration leaks were dominating headlines -- like the one that led the AP to the story about the thwarted bomb plot in Yemen -- lawmakers seemed as resistant as ever to expand the rights of the press.

But things change fast on Capitol Hill. Now that AP reporters have had phone records secretly subpoenaed, some believe there's a new opportunity to press the issue in Congress.

"It is a classic example of how Congress reacts," says Leslie.

"When the news was that there were big leaks that hurt national security, the reaction is that we needed to stop the leaks," he explains. "Now when [Congress] see something happened that looks like a gross overreach by the Department of Justice, that inspires them to act."

But Schumer's office acknowledged in a statement Wednesday that the Free Flow of Information Act may not have stopped the DOJ from subpoenaing AP phone records entirely.

"This kind of law would balance national security needs against the public's right to the free flow of information," Schumer said. "At minimum, our bill would have ensured a fairer, more deliberate process in this case."

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