Americans were shocked two years ago to read that wounded soldiers were being housed at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in moldy, rotting buildings with cockroaches and mice. Ultimately, that reporting led to the firings of the secretary of the Army and two generals. But the articles wouldn't have been written without information provided to reporters by confidential sources who spoke up because their identities were hidden.
Now, the Senate has an opportunity to establish federal protections that will make it easier for other government whistle-blowers to come forward when they see wrongs that won't be corrected unless the public is made aware. The Free Flow of Information Act was passed last week by the Senate Judiciary Committee after Sen. Arlen Specter (D., Pa.) helped negotiate a compromise with the Obama administration, which had raised valid concerns.
This legislation will protect the identities of reporters' sources in most instances, but require reporters to release information when it is needed to prevent a terrorist attack or maintain national security. The government would have to make its case for secrecy to a judge who would hear testimony behind closed doors. A similar bill has unanimously passed the House.
Shield laws protecting reporters from unreasonable government requests for information already exist in 49 states, plus the District of Columbia. News organizations need that same protection in federal cases. Six journalists have been sentenced or jailed in the past eight years for refusing to reveal confidential sources in federal court. Two were sentenced to 18 months in prison, and one fined $5,000 a day.
Such actions have emboldened federal prosecutors to subpoena journalists' notes. These fishing expeditions too often are meant to intimidate reporters and anyone who wants to reveal government malfeasance but fears reprisal if his identity becomes known. Passing the shield law will help ensure that the truth is revealed, and the nation will be made stronger as a result.