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White House asks for bill to protect reporters

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration sought Wednesday to revive legislation that would provide greater protections to reporters from penalties for refusing to identify confidential sources, and that would enable journalists to ask a federal judge to quash subpoenas for their phone records, a White House official said.

The official said that President Obama’s Senate liaison, Ed Pagano, called Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York, who is a chief proponent of a so-called media shield law, on Wednesday morning and asked him to reintroduce a bill that he had pushed in 2009. Called the Free Flow of Information Act, the bill was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee in a bipartisan 15-to-4 vote in December 2009. But while it was awaiting a floor vote, a furor over leaking arose after WikiLeaks began publishing archives of secret government documents, and the bill never received a vote.

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The new push comes as the Obama administration has come under fire from both parties amid the disclosure this week that the Justice Department, as part of a leak investigation, secretly used a subpoena earlier this year to obtain a broad swath of calling records involving Associated Press reporters and editors.

Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. defended the subpoena Tuesday but also disclosed that he had recused himself last year from overseeing the investigation, and that his deputy, James M. Cole, was the official who signed off on obtaining the toll records — logs of calls sent and received — for several AP bureaus and reporters.

Before the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday, Holder reiterated that he had recused himself from the investigation.

“I’m simply not a part of the case,” he said.

Brian Fallon, a spokesman for Schumer, said the senator would reintroduce the version of the bill that passed the Judiciary Committee.

Schumer referred to the AP subpoena: “This kind of law would balance national security needs against the public’s right to the free flow of information. At minimum, our bill would have ensured a fairer, more deliberate process in this case.”

It is not clear whether such a law would have changed the outcome of the subpoena involving the AP. But it might have reduced the chances that the Justice Department would have demanded the records in secret, without any advance notice, and it might have allowed a judge to review whether the request was justified by facts.

Under the 2009 bill, which was negotiated among the newspaper industry, the White House, and the Judiciary Committee, the scope of protection for reporters seeking to shield the identities of their confidential sources or the calling records showing with whom they had communicated would vary according to whether it was a civil case, an ordinary criminal case, or a national security case.

The most protection would be given to civil cases, in which litigants seeking to force reporters to testify or seeking their information would first have to exhaust other means of obtaining the information before making the request.

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