Shield Law: Senators Threaten To Legislate

During a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing yesterday things got a little snarky between members and a senior Justice Department official, Matthew Friedrich. Friedrich was called to the session to discuss, among other issues, suggestions that reporters can be prosecuted for reporting classified information. In addition to some pretty huffy back-and-forth with committee members, Friedrich's statements led committee chairman Arlen Specter (R, Pa.) to suggest that the Senate would take up the issue of a shield law.

While Friedrich reiterated Attorney General Alberto Gonzales' statements that journalists – and anyone else -- could be prosecuted under the 1917 Espionage Act, committee Specter noted that such threats were "an invitation to the Congress to legislate on the subject because we do decide whether criminal prosecutions will be brought. That is clearly our authority and we're now on notice as to what we need to consider. Clearly, the ball is in our court," The New York Sun reported.

Mr. Specter grew irritated when Mr. Friedrich declined to say whether prosecutors have actually considered indicting journalists for their role in publishing classified information. "I don't even understand your point in declining to answer whether the Department of Justice has ever considered it," the senator said.

When Mr. Friedrich began to allude to historical examples, Mr. Specter shot back, "I'm not interested in history this morning. I'm interested in current events."


Friedrich also refused to answer questions about the FBI's rationale in reviewing the late journalist Jack Anderson's papers. According to the Associated Press, Specter and other committee members "grew exasperated" at Friedrich's responses, which "echoed deferrals by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and other Justice Department officials in previous hearings on the administration's domestic wiretapping, phone tapping and other policies."

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D, Vt.) didn't mince words: "Why in heaven's name were you sent up here? Are there any questions you guys are allowed to answer other than your title, time of day?"

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R, Iowa) was also miffed: "I would think the department would send somebody up here to testify that could answer our questions, if they had any respect for this committee."

In other words, the Senate Judiciary committee is none too thrilled with being left in the dark about what the Justice Department is doing snooping around a deceased journalist's files – against the wishes of his family members. Not to mention the lack of clarification about whether the department has considered prosecuting journalists who have been reporting classified information (in other words, most of the people who won Pulitzer's this year.) Of course, those C-Span fans among us have watched many a senatorial conniption fit over this or that issue -- but when they threaten to go beyond hand-slapping during committee hearings and actually legislate … they might really be serious. Maybe.