WASHINGTON -- Despite some misgivings, Arizona Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, announced yesterday that he would support legislation allowing reporters to shield the identity of confidential news sources from prosecutors and law enforcement officials.
"The shield law is, frankly, a license to do harm, perhaps serious harm, but it is also a license to do good," McCain said during an appearance before an audience of reporters, editors and publishers from the Associated Press, the Newspaper Association of America and the American Society of Newspaper Editors.
"I know that the press that discloses security secrets that should have remained so also revealed the disgrace of Abu Ghraib," McCain said. "So I have decided to support [the legislation]. If the vote were held today, I would vote yes."
McCain's position differs from that of the Bush administration, which has expressed strong opposition to the legislation. But McCain, despite his misgivings, told the newspaper groups, "I trust that in the use of confidential sources you won't do more harm than good."
He added: "There will be times, I suspect, when I will wonder again if I should have supported this measure. But I trust in your integrity and patriotism that those occasions won't be so numerous that I will, in fact, deeply regret my decision."
The proposed federal shield law is a top priority of the newspaper organizations, which are holding their annual conferences this week. ASNE, with e-mails and its Web site, also gave the newspaper executives background material and tips on how to lobby members of Congress for passage of the proposed legislation.
The legislation stemmed, in part, from the jailing of former New York Times reporter Judith Miller for refusing to reveal her sources to federal prosecutors investigating the Bush administration's leak of the name of a CIA operative whose husband had been critical of White House policy on Iraq.
Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, addressed the newspaper groups in the afternoon but was not specifically asked about supporting the proposed shield law. But when asked whether a sitting federal judge should decide if a confidential source should be protected, Obama replied, "I think that that is an issue that should be determined by the courts."
New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, who is vying for the Democratic nomination against Obama, is scheduled to address the organizations today.