Arizona Republic — Shield law good for country, informed voters

The Arizona Republic
August 29, 2010

Sen. Jon Kyl continues to argue against legislation intended to make sure the American people know about corruption and incompetence our leaders would just as soon cover up.

The Arizona Republic
August 29, 2010

Sen. Jon Kyl continues to argue against legislation intended to make sure the American people know about corruption and incompetence our leaders would just as soon cover up.

It's the Free Flow of Information Act, which would legally protect reporters from having to reveal their sources in many cases. It's a solid bill intended to maintain the flow of information, which is the lifeblood of self-government.

This shield law is needed to ward off the rising number of subpoenas from government, corporations and individuals demanding reporters give up their sources. Enough reporters have been jailed that whistle-blowers may think twice before exposing dirty secrets.

But Kyl dismisses the bill as a solution in search of a problem. Strangely, he continues to use letters and arguments raised against previous versions of the bill, ignoring changes that render most of those arguments moot. In cases of terrorism and legitimate national-security concerns, the bill's balancing tests lean heavily toward the government.

Kyl doesn't want judges deciding whether a source must be revealed. He wants to leave the decision to intelligence officials. Let's review history: Leaks more often damage the careers of incompetent or corrupt officials than they harm national security. The intelligence officials Kyl would trust have a vested interest in protecting their colleagues.

But Kyl says, what about WikiLeaks? Its publication of 76,000 classified documents on the Afghan war damaged national security and put the lives of soldiers and cooperative Afghan citizens at risk, he says.

We agree that WikiLeaks acted irresponsibly. But that's what makes WikiLeaks a strong argument for passage of the Free Flow of Information Act.

WikiLeaks posts sensitive information sent to it anonymously, with little review. This isn't journalism; it's a dumping ground.

Journalists, in contrast, use leaked documents as a starting point for reporting that adds context. When they receive information that could endanger people, they run it by the government, giving officials the opportunity to argue against disclosure.

Washington Post reporter Dana Priest did this with her recent series on the scope of the national-security apparatus, removing some details because of those conversations.

That's a responsible approach.

Whistle-blowers, however, have to think of themselves. They notice when subpoenas continue to be issued and reporters continue to be jailed to compel the naming of sources. It becomes safer for them to anonymously send documents to WikiLeaks than to talk to a reporter.

Counter to Kyl's argument, the lack of a shield law poses more of a danger to national security than having one. Failure of this act also would endanger the public's ability to monitor government. Bureaucrats don't issue press releases trumpeting their incompetence, malfeasance or violations of the law. They hide it. The only way such misdeeds come out is when an inside source spills the information to a reporter.

Walter Reed. Abu Ghraib. Exploding tires. Steroids in baseball.

All these outrages were gifts from whistle-blowers. Kyl argues that if someone was willing to pull back the curtain without a shield law, they'll keep doing it.

But that ignores changes in the legal environment. Attorneys for news companies report having to fend off hundreds of subpoenas. Over time, this has a chilling effect. It is why a national media coalition, including Gannett Co., Inc., the parent of The Arizona Republic, supports the shield legislation. By giving sources assurances they will remain anonymous, it encourages rooting out corruption. It gives the public greater control.

A large majority in the Senate is ready to pass this bill. Those senators understand a people cannot govern themselves without information. This bill ensures that information will continue to flow freely, without endangering national security or aiding terrorism.

It's disappointing that Kyl opposes the bill. It would be more disappointing if, using Senate rules, he kept it from an up-and-down vote. Vote against the bill if he must, but let democracy work. That's what the bill is intended to do.