The ongoing federal investigation into who leaked former CIA agent Valerie Plame’s name to the news media has prompted new debate over the reporter’s privilege to decline to reveal confidential sources.
It’s another example of the tug-of-war between national-security interests (such as keeping spies’ identities secret) and the public’s right to know whether their government is operating legally (by allowing whistle-blowing, for example).
Journalists argue in defense of “shield laws,” currently on the books in 31 states — including Arizona — and the District of Columbia, that prevent prosecutors from forcing journalists to reveal their sources under oath.
Prosecutors in the Plame investigation have taken advantage of the lack of a federal shield law as they have interviewed a number of journalists — two of whom now face jail.
These two reporters who have refused to reveal their sources, Judith Miller of the New York Times and Matthew Cooper from Time magazine, may be jailed for contempt of court, even though they haven’t published anything about Plame.
A federal statute should be enacted, as certainly the public interest in an independent check on the workings of the national government can be protected nowhere else except through the full exercise of the rights of a free and unfettered press. Only then can those with information about corruption and other wrongdoing in government feel free to bring it to light while having their identities protected.
Such a statute would be subject to interpretation by the courts, which should in all but serious national-security situations give a free press the broadest latitude to keep sources confidential. In no situation should prosecutors be allowed, as in the Plame case, to conduct overbroad fishing expeditions reaching even to reporters such as Miller and Cooper who have yet to report anything about the matter.
A potential federal shield law should be as broad-based as its state counterparts, but should include limited exceptions for reasons that normally do not arise at the state level. The courts must interpret them to ensure neither national security nor basic liberties are compromised.