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McCain supports shield law

Times Staff Writer

Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, said Monday that he supported federal legislation to protect journalists’ confidential sources -- a position that puts him at odds with the Bush administration, which contends that the legislation threatens national security.

In remarks to editors at the annual meeting of the Associated Press, the senator from Arizona said he had decided to “narrowly support” the proposed federal shield law, explaining that an ambivalence he has often felt about the power of the press was outweighed by the benefits such a law could afford.

“The shield law would give great license to you and your sources, with few restrictions, to do as you please no matter the stakes involved and without fear of personal consequences beyond the rebuke of your individual consciences,” McCain said. “It is, frankly, a license to do harm, perhaps serious harm. But it’s also a license to do good, to disclose injustice and unlawfulness and inequities and to encourage their swift correction.”

The proposed shield law seeks to counter a number of recent court rulings in which journalists were determined to have no special right to protect even confidential sources when called to testify before federal grand juries.

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The legislation would set new restrictions for when journalists could be compelled to testify. It also has a number of exceptions, including in cases where disclosure was necessary to head off acts of terrorism. A federal judge would make the final call.

The House passed the legislation 398-21 last October, and the Senate Judiciary Committee, by a 15-2 vote, sent its version of the bill to the full Senate the same month.

In letters sent to Senate leaders in recent weeks, several Bush administration officials -- including Director of National Intelligence J. Michael McConnell and Atty. Gen. Michael B. Mukasey -- called the measure “unwise and unnecessary” and threatened a presidential veto. The administration argues that giving new protections to journalists and their sources would encourage leaks from anonymous government officials and damage national interests.

Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said McCain’s endorsement showed growing bipartisan support for the legislation. “We are absolutely happy to have him,” she said. “The momentum continues.”

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The full Senate could vote on the legislation before Memorial Day, she said.

McCain told the journalists that he continued to take a dim view of news organizations that disclosed classified information, singling out reports in the New York Times about the National Security Agency’s terrorist-surveillance program that he said “came too close to crossing that line.”

“I understand completely why the government charged with defending our security would want to discourage that from happening and hold the people who disclosed that damaging information accountable for their action,” he said.

The Justice Department has been cracking down on leaks of national-security information and has been targeting sources for several articles that have probed the origin of some of the administration’s anti-terrorist responses to the Sept. 11 attacks.

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McCain also scolded editors for acknowledging errors in “the small, small print on a corrections page” and called the workings of American newsrooms “some of the least transparent enterprises in the country.”

But he noted that news organizations also performed a salutary function.

“I know that the press that disclosed security secrets that should have remained so also revealed the disgrace of Abu Ghraib, a disgrace that made it much harder to protect the American people from harm,” he said, alluding to the prison scandal in Iraq. “Thus, despite concerns I have about the legislation, I have narrowly decided to support it.”

At those words, his audience broke into loud applause.

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rick.schmitt@latimes.com


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