Breaking ranks with the Bush administration, Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain, Ariz., said he would support a law to protect journalists' secret relationships with anonymous sources.
"If the vote were held today, I would vote yes," McCain told the audience at the Associated Press' annual meeting in Arlington, Va.
McCain, however, called his decision to support the measure a "narrow" one. "There will be times, I suspect, when I will wonder again if I should have supported this measure," he said, according to the prepared text of his remarks.
Underscoring his ambivalence, McCain criticized the New York Times' decision to reveal the National Security Agency's classified warrantless domestic surveillance program, saying the paper came "too close to crossing" the line of "unnecessarily threaten[ing]...the physical security of Americans." "I understand completely why the government charged with defending our security would want to discourage that from happening and hold the people who disclosed that damaging information accountable for their action," McCain said.
McCain did not mention a widely-criticized New York Times story about him in February that dealt with his relationship with a female lobbyist. The story suggested, without ever proving, the two had a relationship that went beyond the professional. Both McCain and the lobbyist denied they were personally involved.
The so-called "shield law" would protect journalists from court orders to disclose the sources of their stories. Thirty-two states and the District of Columbia have shield laws protecting journalists and their sources in state courts, but there has never been a federal shield law. The House overwhelmingly passed the measure last October, and a companion measure is awaiting a Senate vote.
"It is, frankly, a license to do harm, perhaps serious harm," McCain said of the bill. "But it [is] also a license to do good; to disclose injustice and unlawfulness and inequities; and to encourage their swift correction."
In recent years, journalists have come under increased pressure to reveal their sources in court. In the most well-known recent case, the New York Times' Judith Miller served 85 days in prison in 2005 for refusing to disclose that vice presidential aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby was a source for learning that Valerie Plame was a CIA employee. Miller disclosed the information after a conversation with Libby.
Currently, USA Today reporter Toni Locy is fighting court-sanctioned fines and the threat of imprisonment for refusing to disclose her sources for reporting that former Army scientist Steven Hatfill was a "person of interest" to FBI agents investigating anthrax-laced letters mailed to congressional offices in 2001.
Another New York Times reporter, James Risen, is fighting a January grand jury subpoena for the names of the confidential sources who provided information about the CIA for his book, "State of War."