WASHINGTON (AP) — The Senate is pressing ahead on legislation to protect reporters and the news media, toughening rules on subpoenaing phone records and requiring advanced notice of requests for information.
The Judiciary Committee is scheduled to meet Thursday to begin considering legislation sponsored by Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., a key proponent of a federal media shield law who was unsuccessful four years ago. The panel is expected to begin work on the measure — it has yet to draw sponsors or opponents — but final action on the 21-page bill is likely after Congress' August recess.
The effort comes after the disclosure earlier this year that the Justice Department secretly subpoenaed almost two months of telephone records for 21 phone lines used by reporters and editors for The Associated Press and secretly used a warrant to obtain some emails of a Fox News journalist. The AP received no advanced warning.
A draft of Schumer's measure would incorporate many of the changes proposed by Attorney General Eric Holder in July. Criticism over the collection of the material without any notice to the news organizations prompted President Barack Obama to order Holder to review the department's policy.
Holder's revised guidelines called for the government to give advance notice to the news media about subpoena requests for reporters' phone records unless the attorney general determines such notice would pose a clear and substantial threat to the investigation. Search warrants for a reporter's email would only apply when the individual is the focus of a criminal investigation for conduct not connected to ordinary newsgathering.
The Schumer bill makes clear that before the government asks a news organization to divulge sources it first must go to a judge, who would supervise any subpoenas or court orders for information. Such orders would be limited, if possible, "in purpose, subject matter and period of time covered so as to avoid compelling disclosure of peripheral, nonessential or speculative information."
Holder's revised guidelines do not call for a judge to be involved before the government asks a news organization to divulge sources. However, the guidelines call for a new standing News Media Review Committee to advise the attorney general on such requests.
Reporters must be notified within 45 days of a request, a period that could be extended another 45 days but no more.
In the AP story that triggered one of the leak probes, the news organization reported that U.S. intelligence had learned that al-Qaida's Yemen branch hoped to launch a spectacular attack using a new, nearly undetectable bomb aboard a U.S.-bound airliner around the anniversary of Osama bin Laden's death.
In the Fox News story, reporter James Rosen reported that U.S. intelligence officials had warned Obama and senior U.S. officials that North Korea would respond to a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning nuclear tests with another nuclear test.
In mid-July, Schumer and Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina were joined by five other senators in pushing for some type of legislation. Proponents of the effort were Sens. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., Jon Tester, D-Mont., Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., and Roy Blunt, R-Mo.
One potential issue is the definition of a reporter in the aftermath of WikiLeaks, the website that exposed U.S. classified information leaked by Army Pfc. Bradley Manning.
The bill's definition covers four pages and defines the individual as a person "with the primary intent to investigate events and procure material in order to disseminate to the public news or information concerning local, national or international events or other matters of public interest," collects the information by conducting interviews and directly observing events, and has the intent of gathering news.