As startling as the abuse of power was when the Justice Department issued a sweeping subpoena to obtain two months of phone records from the Associated Press, the action has spawned renewed interest in passing a federal shield law that protects journalists from having to reveal their sources.
Federal shield law legislation has repeatedly stalled in Congress in the past. In the wake of last week's revelations that the Department of Justice used a subpoena to get months of phone records from several AP bureaus and reporters, however, the Obama administration, several members of Congress and others have said they would support the shield law.
Protecting journalists' sources at all costs is important, especially in the case of whistle-blowers or those revealing questionable acts or wrongdoing. But who is going to reveal anything if they know that they can be tracked down through phone calls made to or received from reporters working on the story.
The Justice Department was allegedly looking in to how information about a foiled terror plot was leaked to the Associated Press. Most states, including Maryland, have shield laws in place to protect the government from using journalists to do their investigative work. In most cases, it takes a good reason for a court to demand that a reporter reveal a source. Despite the protections offered by many states, however, there is no federal shield law.
That may change now though. Even Attorney General Eric Holder, speaking before the House Judiciary Committee last week, said he supported a federal shield law. According to a New York Times story on the hearing, Holder said, "The focus should be on those people who break their oath and put the American people at risk, not reporters who gather this information."
Words, however, are cheap. Now Congress must act to pass a federal shield law.