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McConnell to Reporters: Up Your Nose With A Rubber Hose

Mike McConnell, the director of national intelligence, has a charming op-ed in USA Today about why reporters don’t deserve a federal shield law:

The Senate is considering a proposal that would bestow a “privilege” on reporters, shielding them from revealing confidential sources of important national security information, even when their sources have broken the law by disclosing classified information. The intelligence community recognizes the critical role that the news media plays in our democratic society. However, this bill would upset the balance established by current law, crippling the government’s ability to investigate and prosecute those who harm national security.

I have joined the attorney general, the secretaries of Defense, Energy, Homeland Security and Treasury, and every senior intelligence community leader in expressing the belief, based on decades of experience, that this bill will gravely damage our ability to protect national security information. Unauthorized disclosure of classified information disrupts our efforts to track terrorists, jeopardizes the lives of intelligence and military personnel and inhibits international cooperation critical to detecting and preventing threats. Those who illegally disclose information recklessly risk our national security and breach a sacred public trust.

National security reporters feel this danger acutely. Nearly everything under the sun in the national-security arena is stamped classified, regardless of its actual utility to protecting the country or the actual danger of its potential disclosure. The power to classify is entirely at the executive branch’s discretion, without any check at all, and so it’s used to shield abuses of power. Dana Priest’s disclosure of secret CIA torture chambers, Jim Risen’s disclosure of warrantless surveillance programs and Sy Hersh’s disclosure of Abu Ghraib all involved disclosing classified information. No one died from those revelations and no one ever will.

I once had a series of panic-striken coffees with someone who lived in constant terror that his life would be destroyed because of the lack of a shield law. He was afraid that he was going to be swept up in an investigation about who leaked certain classified information to another journalist. I don’t know what happened, because he quite prudently decided to stop speaking with me and instructed me not to contact him. All this could have been avoided by making it illegal to compel my colleague from disclosing who his sources were.

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