Robert Novak

In the Senate, Kyl effectively put a hold on shield legislation after last year, proposing an alternative that actually prohibits a reporter from disclosing any classified information, whatever the merit of the classification. Justice Department opposition to a shield was fueled by prosecutors such as Fitzgerald, the U.S. attorney in Chicago, who view journalists as their adversary.

In the first week of April, the administration unlimbered its big guns. Attorney General Michael Mukasey, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and Director of National Intelligence J.M. McConnell sent letters to the Senate complaining that shield legislation made it too difficult to catch leakers.

Pence hoped this opposition did not really reflect the president, and I inquired at the White House. Indeed, I was told, this was George W. Bush's own view. Pence, to his dismay, received that clear message last week.

Considering McCain's hard line on national security, Pence expected no more than neutrality from a critic of the New York Times disclosure of the government's communications surveillance. Instead, McCain told the annual meeting of The Associated Press Monday that, after "a hard time deciding," he "narrowly" endorsed shield legislation as not only "a license to do harm" but also "a license to do good, to disclose injustice and unlawfulness and inequities, and to encourage their swift correction."

Pence would like to make that case face-to-face with George W. Bush. But this president is not easy to see even for a prominent congressman of his own party, and Pence may have to settle for talking to a senior aide. Nevertheless, Pence is hard to discourage and still wants that meeting, to enlist his president in helping Congress pass its first press freedom legislation since the Bill of Rights.

Robert Novak

Robert Novak (1931-2009) was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report.

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