In 2005, The New York Times published a bombshell report on a warrantless wiretap program that eavesdropped on Americans’ phone calls and monitored their e-mails in a bid to uncover links to terrorists abroad.
It was journalism at its finest — a news outlet working with whistleblowers to expose a possible abuse of power.
But the upper reaches of the Bush administration saw little to admire. And not long after, officials formed a special task force to hunt for the anonymous sources the Times had tapped for the article.
It was not the first time government pushed back on a prying press.
But it marked the unofficial start of a dramatic and worrisome escalation of the war on leaks.
The Obama administration prosecuted more people for leaking sensitive information than all previous administrations combined. And it showed little compunction about going after journalist-source communications.
In one case, it obtained records for 20 Associated Press phone lines in what the news organization called a “massive and unprecedented intrusion” into its journalistic endeavors. And in another, it went so far as to label a Fox News reporter a criminal coconspirator.
Former president Donald Trump, who called the media the “enemy of the people,” kept it going. Officials in his administration secretly seized the phone records of four Times journalists who’d reported on former FBI director James Comey’s handling of a politically charged investigation into Hillary Clinton, obtained phone logs for three Washington Post reporters who had written about Russian interference in the 2016 election, and reviewed phone and e-mail records for a CNN correspondent who reported on the Pentagon.
The Biden administration, thankfully, has sworn off investigations of journalists.
Last year, President Biden said the practice is “simply, simply wrong.” And Attorney General Merrick Garland followed with a new rule barring attempts to obtain journalists’ records or compel their testimony in all but the most narrow circumstances.
But there is nothing permanent about that rule. Another president hostile to the press — or overly jealous of government secrets — could repeal it.
That’s why it’s time for Congress to pass a federal shield law for journalists — permanently barring the government from accessing journalists’ source information or work product.
The House of Representatives has already approved a shield, with exceptions if disclosure is required to prevent a terrorist attack or “a threat of imminent violence.”
Now it’s up to the Senate, where press advocates hope lawmakers will tack the measure onto a must-pass, year-end spending measure.
“For most of the history of our country, the notion that federal law enforcement would try to dragoon, or commandeer, journalists — people intuitively thought that was problematic,” says Gabe Rottman, director of the technology and press freedom project for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
But the events of the past couple decades, he says, have made it clear “that there’s a real need for this now.”
Rottman says a handful of Republican senators on the judiciary committee appear to be holding up the measure for reasons that are unclear.
The legislation, known as the PRESS Act, should be approved. Whistleblowers need to know that they can speak to reporters in confidence. Journalists need the freedom to do their most important job — exposing wrongdoing.
There are plenty of problems with American democracy that feel beyond solution. This isn’t one of them.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.