WASHINGTON The Bush administration on Tuesday threatened to veto legislation to bar the government from jailing reporters who protect their confidential sources -- a measure that also could have protected former White House aide Lewis "Scooter" Libby.
The White House said the bill, due for a vote in the House of Representatives later on Tuesday, would hurt national security by making it too difficult to prosecute leaks of classified information.
"Many members of our administration have testified on this issue, believing that the protections that are in place currently for journalists were sufficient," White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said.
Ironically, a shield law could have protected White House staffers who spoke to reporters had it been in place when the Justice Department investigated who blew the cover of former CIA analyst Valerie Plame.
Former New York Times reporter Judith Miller spent 85 days in jail rather than divulge conversations she had about Plame with Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's then-chief of staff.
Libby was ultimately convicted on four counts of perjury and obstructing justice in a case that was built on the testimony of other reporters after an appeals court ruled that they had no right to resist a subpoena.
President George W. Bush commuted Libby's prison sentence.
News organizations say a shield law is needed to prevent reporters from becoming de facto arms of law enforcement. Government abuses are less likely to come to light if reporters cannot promise confidentiality to whistle-blowers, backers say.
Thirty-two states and the District of Columbia currently have shield laws in place, but federal laws offer no such protection.
Other reporters have spent up to seven months in jail to protect their sources.
The bill up for consideration in the House would prohibit prosecutors from forcing reporters to testify in court or turn over their notes, unless a judge ruled otherwise.
Exceptions would be made if the material in question was needed to stop an imminent threat to national security or personal health. Trade secrets and other financial information would also not be protected.
A similar bill has been introduced in the Senate.
(Additional reporting by Caren Bohan)