Days after the White House spy scandal continued to send shock throughout US media, the Obama administration is firing on four cylinders to repair the damage.
In an apparent act of damage control, senators are reheating old media-protecting legislation at the request of the White House. Senator Schumer announced that he will re-introduce an old bill, the Free Flow of Information Act, which was kicked in long grass back in 2009. The bill would protect journalists from being compelled to testify about their confidential sources until all other avenues are exhausted and gives priority to the public interest.
Shield legislation is supposed to protect journalists should they refuse to reveal their confidential sources, unless the government can provide a "reasonable" justification for its request that outweighs a journalists’ right to keep their sources confidential.
Very little is said that Obama did not support this law at the time. There is also some confusion about whether the administration now supports a different version of the bill that may significantly weaken journalists’ protection, that is if they refuse to disclose confidential sources who leak material about national security. This is where a fudge is being made by a government seeking a far broader national security exemption and querying the very definition of who is a “legitimate” journalist.
Whatever the contents of the new bill being talked about, there is a big question mark about Obama’s professed commitment to “unfettered investigative journalism.” Obama’s record in office does not inspire confidence as it does not square with his prosecution of twice as many leakers as all previous administrations combined.
Obama’s opponents say he has never been a champion of civil liberties. They say that the AP spying scandal is part of his war on whistleblowers, including the main actors in Wikileaks. They dismiss Obama’s pushing of such a law now as "Obama's strongest political maneuver at the moment to shore up his civil libertarian credentials," according to Jonathan Chait at New York magazine.
As Obama’s administration continued its attempt to repair the damage, it did not concur with recent declarations by its most trusted civil servants, such as Attorney General Eric Holder. Appearing in front of the House Judiciary Committee to throw some light on the department’s decision to pursue the AP phone records, he deployed huge skills to whitewash such an unprecedented assault on press freedom.
He started by giving his support for the expansion of police state measures pursued in the name of “war on terror” and justified unreservedly the actions of the Department of Justice. “We’ve utilised essential intelligence-gathering and surveillance capabilities in a manner that’s consistent with the rule of law, and with our most treasured values.” he said. Meanwhile the department still rejects demands to return the telephone records it has subpoenaed, throwing doubt on Obama’s much trumpeted belief in “unfettered investigative journalism”.