President Barack Obama says he strongly supports transparency in government. As senator he co-sponsored a federal shield bill to protect journalists from having to disclose their confidential sources, demonstrating his understanding that insiders often won't come forward to report on abuse and wrongdoing by government without guarantees of anonymity. But now as president, Obama wants to water down a similar proposal. It is a disappointing about-face for those who saw Obama's election as ushering in a new era of openness.
During the Bush administration, journalists relied on government insiders to share confidential details of secret overseas CIA prisons, rendition, prisoner abuses and warrantless domestic surveillance programs. These stories changed our national conversation and educated the public in an essential way. Obama may even trace his successful election in part to this drumbeat of revelations about the way President George W. Bush abused his executive powers.
But this kind of reporting rarely happens unless journalists can guarantee their sources confidentiality, which is why a federal shield law is needed to limit the ability of prosecutors to force journalists to reveal their sources, except in exceptional circumstances. Under a measure before the Senate Judiciary Committee, before a source is disclosed judges would properly balance the interests of prosecutors with the public's interest in news-gathering and the free flow of information.
Obama once supported this balancing test, but the administration now says it wants changes to the legislation. Apparently, Obama shifted his views after a meeting with his national security advisers, including Attorney General Eric Holder, FBI director Robert Mueller and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. The administration wants the federal shield law to direct judges to force journalists to disclose their sources whenever a leak may cause significant harm to national security. And judges would be obligated to largely defer to executive branch claims that a leak is likely to harm national security.
After eight years of the Bush administration, it became clear that national security claims often are red herrings, used to prevent the disclosure of embarrassing information. That is why judges should be left to evaluate assertions of national security and when sources should retain their confidentiality without the administration putting its thumb on the scales.
Obama's change of heart will gut the federal shield law's intended purpose. The Senate should ignore the administration's objections and pass the measure without making changes. If Obama then vetoes it, he will have violated a good-government promise.