Deputy Attorney General James Comey canceled his appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee just before a hearing on this issue was to commence Wednesday morning. In prepared remarks already submitted to the panel, Comey said the measure would "create serious impediments" to the Justice Department's ability "to effectively enforce the law and fight terrorism."
"The bill is bad public policy primarily because it would bar the government from obtaining information about media sources — even in the most urgent of circumstances affecting the public's health or safety or national security," Comey's prepared remarks said.
"If that is so," said Sen. Christopher Dodd, "then wouldn't we expect to see great threats to public safety in those states that have shield laws which are at least as protective as the shield laws that we propose?" Dodd, D-Conn., is a consponsor of the Senate bill.
Thirty-one states and the District of Columbia have such "shield" laws, but there is no set of standards that applies in federal courts.
Sen. Arlen Specter, the panel's chairman, said that Comey could not be present for the hearing because he needed to testify in the House at a hearing on the renewal of the terrorism-fighting Patriot Act.
The panel is considering a bill sponsored by Sen. Richard Lugar and Rep. Mike Pence, both Indiana Republicans, that would protect reporters from being imprisoned by federal courts.
Two weeks ago, a federal judge sent New York Times reporter Judith Miller to jail for refusing to divulge who told her that Valerie Plame, the wife of former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, was a CIA officer. Miller never actually wrote a story using the name of the formerly undercover CIA officer.
Pointing to broader implications, the special prosecutor in the Plame case, Patrick Fitzgerald, said earlier this month that "we can't have 50,000 journalists" making their own decisions about whether to reveal sources.