Two weeks ago, the DOJ Inspector General released a report on the FBI's use of National Security Letters
(NSLs)—the controversial (and unconstitutional) surveillance instruments used
to gather personal information of Americans without any prior oversight from a judge. In a little-noticed passage buried in the report, the IG describes how NSLs have been used on
journalists in the past, and indicates that the FBI can currently circumvent the
Justice Department's media guidelines to do so
in the future.
When and precisely how can they do so? Well, apparently that's classified.
First, some background: In July, after a torrent of criticism that the Justice Department (DOJ) was targeting reporters in the wake of
the Associated Press and
Fox News scandals, Attorney General Eric Holder
issued new guidelines for DOJ that tightened
the rules for when they could secretly obtain records from reporters. Notably, the guidelines excluded National Security Letters.
This is critical because past IG reports, as well as the new one, have harshly criticized the FBI for circumventing the old media guidelines and using NSLs to gain access
to reporters' records on at least three occasions. Earlier this year Pulitzer Prize winner Barton Gellman
revealed his telephone records had once been targeted by an NSL.
As the New York Times reported when the
new guidelines were issued in July:
There is no change to how the F.B.I. may obtain reporters' calling records via "national security letters," which are exempt from the regular guidelines. A Justice spokesman said the device is "subject to an extensive oversight regime."
What is the "extensive oversight regime"? The IG report discusses it, but the FBI has brazenly redacted the whole thing. From page 178 of the new report:
The above passage is referencing the FBI's response to the IG's criticism of a leak investigation in which a journalist's telephone records were accessed with an NSL. 28 C.F.R. § 50.10 refers to the media guidelines. Reading between the redactions, it seems that Attorney General approval may required in some classified circumstances but not in others. The FBI thinks those circumstances should be secret.
Worse, it seems the FBI has so far ignored another IG recommendation regarding the use of NSLs against reporters. From page 192 of the report:
Unfortunately, the redactions in this section make it nearly unintelligible, but it's clear from the reference to the DOJ's media guidelines in the second paragraph that they are writing about leak investigations and journalists.
It should be noted from the very first footnote of the 196-page report that the IG strongly objected to many of the redactions within the report, including both information that was made public in previous reports and information they "believe is important to the public's understanding of the FBI's compliance with NSL requirements."
And that's the crux of the issue: how can the public be expected to have confidence in a so-called "extensive oversight regime", without any transparency or inkling of what it is? All too often the government has expected us to trust that such authorities are not being abused, while their own investigations continually uncover problems with compliance.
Beyond the fact that the whole NSL statute was ruled unconstitutional last year (the ruling is on hold pending appeal), journalists—at the bare minimum—deserve to know when the FBI thinks it can secretly conduct surveillance on them without court approval. As the IG states, this has significant First Amendment implications and it's a travesty that the FBI continues to keep their policies for spying on the press a secret.
from the abuse-of-power-is-easy-when-you're-in-power dept
Plebgate is one of those silly minor political spats in the UK involving a top UK politician who apparently got angry that police wouldn't let him ride his bike out of the main gate at 10 Downing Street. The details really don't matter. It's just one of those political type stories that the press loves. But, now it's come out that in investigating this incident, the Metropolitan Police appear to have abused an anti-terror law to obtain the phone records of journalists who reported on the story.
Specifically, the police made use of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA), the big anti-terror law in the UK that earlier this year we noted was abused to track down a government whistleblower. And this time it was used to get the phone records of Tom Newton Dunn, the political editor of The Sun, because the Sun reported on the whole Plebgate affair. The use of RIPA -- which, again, is supposed to be for tracking down terrorists -- let the police circumvent the law they're supposed to use, the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE), which requires the police to actually go before a judge first when trying to access journalistic materials. With RIPA, the police could just claim they need the records, and boom, the phone company handed them over.
For various obvious reasons, journalists are fairly alarmed by this clear abuse of the law to view the private communications of journalists. From the Guardian's coverage of this:
Sources in the Sun newsroom said Newton Dunn was disgusted and outraged to learn the police had seized his phone records. “The first we knew of it was yesterday, we are taking legal advice,” said the source on Tuesday. “We would never have known unless the Met report came out.”
Another said: “This is unbelievable. It’s like the secret police going round checking journalists’ phones. If they have done this, the bigger question is how often have they done this?”
Actually, the bigger question goes beyond just how often have they done this for journalists' records, but how often are they doing this for lots of other stuff. As David Meyer at GigaOm rightly points out, the recent (rushed through with no debate) data retention law, DRIP, in the UK expands RIPA to cover all kinds of internet communications as well. Thus, thanks to DRIP, the police can get all sorts of similar information -- and they seem clearly willing to use it on cases that have absolutely nothing to do with terrorism at all, but even in minor political spats that involve the police themselves.
It's not a surprise that surveillance laws will be abused. But it's worth highlighting when they're abused so egregiously.
Parties acknowledge and agree that the media and members of the public have a right to record public events without abridgement unless it obstructs the activity or threatens the safety of others, or physically interferes with the ability of law enforcement officers to perform their duties.
This was based on a lawsuit brought by Mustafa Hussein, the reporter for radio station KARG (Argus Radio) who got some attention last night after a police officer yelled at him to "get the fuck out of here or you're going to get shelled with this" while pointing some sort of weapon at him:
Note that the agreement was signed by Hussein and parties representing St. Louis County, the City of Ferguson and the Missouri Highway Patrol... on Friday the 15th. The threat to Hussein came on Sunday... the 17th.
And the police arrested him. Yeah, you can see how they thought he was a "danger"... to them trying to control the narrative of what's happening.
And here's a video of police threatening CNN's Don Lemon -- which I've now seen, but for reasons that I don't understand, the video seems to disappear at times (as does the embed code).
No matter what, it seems pretty clear that police are continuing to stamp on the rights of just about everyone, including those with cameras and microphones (so you can just imagine how they're handling those without such things). The fact that there's a signed court agreement promising not to do this doesn't seem to matter to anyone.
So we just had a story about a court recognizing that, yes, blogs are a part of the media, and noted how ridiculous it was that this is still an issue in 2014. However, it appears that the Supreme Court is still living in a different century (okay, maybe not a huge surprise, since they still haven't figured out email). If you follow issues around litigation, it's likely that sooner or later you'll read SCOTUSblog, which is (deservedly) the go to source for anything related to anything having to do with Supreme Court cases. On mornings when decisions come out, it's always the first source I check, and I'm hardly alone among legal watchers.
SCOTUSblog is not now, and has never been, credentialed by the Supreme Court. The Court’s longstanding policy was to look to credentials issued by the Senate. We pursued a Senate credential for several years, modifying several policies of the blog to address concerns expressed by the Gallery. Last year, we finally succeeded – the Senate Press Gallery credentialed Lyle as a reporter for SCOTUSblog. We then presented that credential to the Supreme Court, thinking that the issue was resolved.
But the Court declined to recognize the credential, explaining that it would instead review its credentialing policy. The Court has not indicated when that review will conclude.
This is complicated further by the fact that the Senate Press Gallery has now rejected SCOTUSblog's request for a press pass, and also told the blog it will not renew Lyle's press pass -- thereby cutting off the blog to both the Senate and the Court. SCOTUSblog's Tom Goldstein does note that the Supreme Court itself has actually tried to accommodate the blog's requests for public seats, despite not agreeing to give it a press pass. The situation is clearly ridiculous:
All that said, the Senate Press Gallery’s decision to deny us a credential is important to us. We wanted the credential in substantial part because we cover Supreme Court-related matters in the Senate. Most significantly, we do gavel-to-gavel, liveblog coverage of Supreme Court nominations. We also expect to cover hearings related to the Court’s budget. So those efforts are now more difficult.
So we plan to appeal the Senate Gallery’s credentialing decision. We do not have a written list of the reasons for the denial, which makes the process more difficult. Our impression is also that the appeal may go to the same group that denied the application in the first place. If the appeal is denied, then we expect to litigate the issue. We’re now coordinating all those efforts with other groups that kindly have offered to support us.
All in all, the refusal by the Court and the Senate to credential us have always seemed strange. No one seems to doubt that we are a journalistic entity and that we serve a public function. Winning the Peabody and other awards would seem to confirm that. And the Court for years has functionally recognized us, because obviously the overwhelming majority of Lyle’s work is for us. We do not want any kind of special treatment. Credentialing the blog doesn’t give us any special power or recognition; it just makes our jobs incrementally easier. All in all, it doesn’t seem to make sense to impose burdens on us that are greater than those that apply to others who fundamentally do the same thing.
I don't think "strange" is the right word. Shameful works better. Stupid would apply as well.
There had been a time when we thought that a "media shield" law was a good idea. Such a law would make it explicit that journalists don't have to give up their sources. However, over the many, many years of the debate concerning such a law, we noticed a troubling pattern, in that politicians kept wanting to narrowly limit who was a "journalist," often saying amateur journalists don't count. Senator Lindsey Graham even explicitly stated that he wasn't sure if bloggers deserved First Amendment protections. A completely out of touch Senator Dianne Feinstein insisted that "real journalists" draw salaries from big media companies. When Wikileaks first became a big deal, those working on the legislation actually worked hard to make sure that Wikileaks would not be covered.
There are all sorts of problems with all of that, starting with the most obvious: when the government gets to define who is and who is not a "journalist," you're raising serious First Amendment questions about how Congress can make no law interfering with a free press. By defining who is and who is not a journalist, it would appear that Congress is violating that basic concept.
Driving home this point last week, the main author of the Senate's shield law, Senator Chuck Schumer, himself has admitted that he's not sure if his own law would protect Glenn Greenwald:
Schumer discussed the bill's provisions and how, if it became law, it might affect journalist Glenn Greenwald, who reported on National Security Agency's secret surveillance based on documents leaked by Edward Snowden.
"It's probably not enough protections to (cover) him, but it's better than current law," Schumer said.
And that demonstrates how the law actually may be worse than current law. If it's carving out exceptions for the people doing real investigative reporting, breaking big stories that are having a very serious global impact on a variety of issues, then it's making the situation worse, not better.
Any law that attempts to define "journalist" is going to be a massive problem and likely unconstitutional. There is some view that we already have a journalism shield law in the First Amendment itself. Alternatively, if the government really wants to make an explicit safe harbor to protect journalist sources, it seems that a better approach would be to not define "journalists," but just make it clear that it protects anyone "engaged in journalism," whether professional or not. The whole reason why the Senate is so fearful of having the law too broad is that they're worried that, say, someone engaged in criminal activity will be able to get immunity from revealing accomplices by claiming to be a journalist. But, instead you could just look at whether the activities they were engaged in was gathering information for the sake of disclosing it, and see that it was a form of journalism. But, instead, it looks like Congress wants to push forward with a bad law that is almost certainly unconstitutional.
While there have been some occasional nutty attempts to paint journalists reporting on the documents that Ed Snowden revealed as being somehow legally at risk for doing so, for the most part, US officials have recognized that we do respect the freedom of the press in this country. This has been in stark contrast to the UK, where a whole investigation is ongoing into The Guardian's role in reporting on the documents. However, that changed this morning, when Director of National Intelligence James Clapper appeared before the Senate Intelligence Committee to deliver his "Worldwide Threat Assessment."
In his prepared statement, Clapper made it clear that he views the journalists who have copies of the documents as "accomplices" to Snowden -- who has been charged with violating the Espionage Act. As he said:
Snowden claims that he's won and that his mission is accomplished. If that is so, I call on him and his accomplices to facilitate the return of the remaining stolen documents that have not yet been exposed to prevent even more damage to U.S. security.
Here, Clapper is referring to "accomplices" as those who can "facilitate the return of the remaining" documents. As Snowden has said, the only ones to whom he has given those documents are the journalists with whom he has worked. As has been publicly reported, the journalists who are in possession of thousands of Snowden documents include myself, Laura Poitras, Barton Gellman/The Washington Post, The New York Times, the Guardian, and ProPublica.
Is it now the official view of the Obama administration that these journalists and media outlets are "accomplices" in what they regard as Snowden's crimes? If so, that is a rather stunning and extremist statement. Is there any other possible interpretation of Clapper's remarks?
That is absolutely crazy. Even more ridiculous is that ODNI's public affair director more or less confirmed the point:
The office's public affairs director Shawn Turner said in an email that “director Clapper was referring to anyone who is assisting Snowden to further threaten our national security through the unauthorized disclosure of stolen documents related to lawful foreign intelligence collection programs.”
Of course, just last year (prior to the Snowden leaks), there was a bit of a scandal when it was revealed that the DOJ was claiming to courts that certain journalists were accomplices in order to spy on them to get access to their sources. That controversy resulted in Attorney General Eric Holder promising new guidelines to stop targeting journalists. And, just today, Holder told Congress that those new rules are already in effect.
Clapper's choice of words here was deliberate. Even if the government doesn't go after any of the journalists with Snowden's documents, the message today's statement made is loud and clear: we can go after you and charge you criminally. And that's an incredibly chilling message in a country that is supposed to respect the freedom of the press.
In July, we wrote about a worrisome ruling by an appeals court, that said that NYTimes reporter James Risen could be compelled to give up his sources by putting him on the witness stand in a whistleblower case. Risen is, quite reasonably, arguing that Constitutional protections for a free press should prevent him from having to reveal sources. The appeals court panel had ruled two-to-one against Risen and in favor of the government. Risen asked the entire appeals court to rehear the appeal (a so-called "en banc" rehearing), but the Fourth Circuit appeals court has rejected the request by an overwhelming majority: 13-to-1. The one vote in favor of rehearing the appeal was, not surprisingly, the sole judge who sided with Risen in the original ruling, Roger Gregory. The case isn't over yet, as Risen will almost certainly ask the Supreme Court to hear the appeal. And, given the subject area, one hopes that the Supreme Court will agree to take the case. But, for now, we're left in a world where the government continues to have way too much power over a supposedly free press in their ongoing war against whistleblowers.
Over the past several months, the Obama Administration has defended the government's far-reaching data collection efforts, arguing that only criminals and terrorists need worry. The nation's leading internet and telecommunications companies have said they are committed to the sanctity of their customers' privacy.
I have some very personal reasons to doubt those assurances.
In 2004, my telephone records as well as those of another New York Times reporter and two reporters from the Washington Post, were obtained by federal agents assigned to investigate a leak of classified information. What happened next says a lot about what happens when the government's privacy protections collide with the day-to-day realities of global surveillance.
The story begins in 2003 when I wrote an article about the killing of two American teachers in West Papua, a remote region of Indonesia where Freeport-McMoRan operates one of the world's largest copper and gold mines. The Indonesian government and Freeport blamed the killings on a separatist group, the Free Papua Movement, which had been fighting a low-level guerrilla war for several decades.
I opened my article with this sentence: "Bush Administration officials have determined that Indonesian soldiers carried out a deadly ambush that killed two American teachers."
I also reported that two FBI agents had travelled to Indonesia to assist in the inquiry and quoted a "senior administration official" as saying there "was no question there was a military involvement.''
The story prompted a leak investigation. The FBI sought to obtain my phone records and those of Jane Perlez, the Times bureau chief in Indonesia and my wife. They also went after the records of the Washington Post reporters in Indonesia who had published the first reports about the Indonesian government's involvement in the killings.
As part of its investigation, the FBI asked for help from what is described in a subsequent government report as an "on-site communications service" provider. The report, by the Department of Justice's Inspector General, offers only the vaguest description of this key player, calling it "Company A.''
"We do not identify the specific companies because the identities of the specific providers who were under contract with the FBI for specific services are classified,'' the report explained.
Whoever they were, Company A had some impressive powers. Through some means – the report is silent on how – Company A obtained records of calls made on Indonesian cell phones and landlines by the Times and Post reporters. The records showed whom we called, when and for how long -- what has now become famous as "metadata."
Under DOJ rules, the FBI investigators were required to ask the Attorney General to approve a grand jury subpoena before requesting records of reporters' calls. But that's not what happened.
Instead, the bureau sent Company A what is known as an "exigent letter'' asking for the metadata.
A heavily redacted version of the DOJ report, released in 2010, noted that exigent letters are supposed to be used in extreme circumstances where there is no time to ask a judge to issue a subpoena. The report found nothing "exigent'' in an investigation of several three-year-old newspaper stories.
The need for an exigent letter suggests two things about Company A. First, that it was an American firm subject to American laws. Second, that it had come to possess my records through lawful means and needed legal justification to turn them over to the government.
The report disclosed that the agents' use of the exigent letter was choreographed by the company and the bureau. It said the FBI agent drafting the letter received "guidance" from "a Company A analyst.'' According to the report, lawyers for Company A and the bureau worked together to develop the approach.
Not surprisingly, "Company A" quickly responded to the letter it helped write. In fact, it was particularly generous, supplying the FBI with records covering a 22-month period, even though the bureau's investigation was limited to a seven-month period. Altogether, "Company A" gave the FBI metadata on 1,627 calls by me and the other reporters.
Only three calls were within the seven-month window of phone conversations investigators had decided to review.
It doesn't end there.
The DOJ report asserts that "the FBI made no investigative use of the reporters' telephone records." But I don't believe that is accurate.
In 2007, I heard rumblings that the leak investigation was focusing on a diplomat named Steve Mull, who was the deputy chief of mission in Indonesia at the time of the killings. I had known Mull when he was a political officer in Poland and I was posted there in the early 1990s. He is a person of great integrity and a dedicated public servant.
The DOJ asked to interview me. Of course, I would not agree to help law enforcement officials identify my anonymous sources. But I was troubled because I felt an honorable public servant had been forced to spend money on lawyers to fend off a charge that was untrue. After considerable internal debate, I decided to talk to the DOJ for the limited purpose of clearing Mull.
It was not a decision I could make unilaterally. The Times also had a stake in this. If I allowed myself to be interviewed, how could the Times say no the next time the government wanted to question a Times reporter about a leak?
The Times lawyer handling this was George Freeman, a journalist's lawyer, a man Times reporters liked having in their corner. George and the DOJ lawyers began to negotiate over my interview. Eventually, we agreed that I would speak on two conditions: one, that they could not ask me for the name of my source; and two, if they asked me if it was ‘X,' and I said no, they could not then start going through other names.
Freeman and I sat across a table from two DOJ lawyers. I'm a lawyer, and prided myself on being able to answer their questions with ease, never having to turn to Freeman for advice.
Until that is, one of the lawyers took a sheaf of papers that were just off to his right, and began asking me about phone calls I made to Mull. One call was for 19 minutes, the DOJ lawyer said, giving me the date and time. I asked for a break to consult with Freeman.
We came back, and answered questions about the phone calls. I said that I couldn't remember what these calls were about – it had been more than four years earlier – but that Mull had not given me any information about the killings. Per our agreement, the DOJ lawyers did not ask further questions about my sources, and the interview ended.
I didn't know how the DOJ had gotten my phone records, but assumed the Indonesian government had provided them. Then, about a year later, I received a letter from the FBI's general counsel, Valerie Caproni who wrote that my phone records had been taken from "certain databases" under the authority of an "exigent letter,'' (a term I had never heard).
Caproni sent similar letters to Perlez, to the Washington Post reporters, and to the executive editors of the Post and the Times, Leonard Downie and Bill Keller, respectively. In addition, FBI Director Robert Mueller called Downie and Keller, according to the report.
Caproni wrote that the records had not been seen by anyone other than the agent requesting them and that they had been expunged from all databases.
I'm uneasy because the DOJ report makes clear that the FBI is still concealing some aspect of this incident. After describing Caproni's letters, the report says: "However, the FBI did not disclose to the reporters or their editors that [BLACKED OUT]." The thick black lines obliterate what appear to be several sentences.
If you were to ask senior intelligence officials whether I should wonder about those deletions, they'd probably say no.
I'm not so sure.
The government learned extensive details about my personal and professional life. Most of those calls were about other stories I was writing. Some were undoubtedly to arrange my golf game with the Australian ambassador. Is he now under suspicion? The report says the data has been destroyed and that only two analysts ever looked at it.
But who is this 'Company A" that willingly cooperated with the government? Why was it working hand in glove with the FBI? And what did the FBI director not tell the editors of the Times and the Washington Post when he called them acknowledging the government had improperly obtained reporter's records?
There have been debates on a setting up a special journalist shield law for many years, and every time it comes up it leads to something problematic, as various supporters suddenly want to narrowly define what a journalist is, often in a manner that carves out new forms of media. And, indeed, it appears that's exactly what happened this morning in the Senate Judiciary Committee. Eventually, the bill passed out of committee with a much broader definition than some feared, but one that still tries to define who is a journalist very specifically -- in a manner that "carves out" the specific kinds of journalism Congress doesn't like, such as Wikileaks.
The new amendment, brokered by Sen. Chuck Schumer, significantly expands on that definition. Now, a journalist would be defined as someone employed by or in contract with a media outlet for at least one year within the last 20 years or three months within the last five years; someone with a substantial track record of freelancing in the last five years; or a student journalist.
In addition, the law would protect a person deemed appropriate by a federal judge, so long as their newsgathering practices have been consistent with the law.
This is better than it could have been, and giving judges the ability to go beyond the narrow definition is at least better than the alternative. However, it still is an attempt to carve out certain types of journalism that Congress is uncomfortable with -- and frankly, I'm rather uncomfortable with Congress thinking that its role. Chuck Schumer flat out said that he wanted this definition to exclude Wikileaks -- which is an operation that many of us believe absolutely is a journalistic operation.
"The world has changed. We’re very careful in this bill to distinguish journalists from those who shouldn’t be protected, WikiLeaks and all those, and we’ve ensured that," Schumer said at the time. "But there are people who write and do real journalism, in different ways than we’re used to. They should not be excluded from this bill."
In fact it seems like a good part of the hearing this morning was an attempt for Senators to show their contempt for the types of journalists they don't like. Senator Feinstein, who has been pushing for a very narrow definition for a long time, suggested at the hearing -- as if it were self-evident -- that no 17-year-old high school drop-out with a blog should be covered. But why? What if that high school drop out does actual journalism and breaks a story about, say, government corruption? Why shouldn't she be covered? Senator Jeff Sessions went to ridiculous lengths, arguing that journalists who reveal classified info shouldn't be covered. In other words, those who do real investigative journalism and expose government wrongdoing wouldn't be considered journalists if his amendment had passed (thankfully, it didn't). But, as Senator John Cornyn pointed out, just the fact that you had the Senate debating who should and who shouldn't be a journalist should be "chilling to us all." Though, of course, even Cornyn wanted to only cover journalists who are Americans.
In the end, what passed is extremely flawed and definitely not a step in a good direction. Once we reach the point at which we even allow Congress to set parameters for who should, and who should not be considered a journalist, we've gone too far. Because we know that setting that precedent will lead to further encroachments down the road. Furthermore, the current definition will almost certainly not protect journalists when they need it most, in stories involving "national security," more or less making this law a dead letter on arrival.
We've long advocated that any shield law shouldn't try to define journalists by their profession, but rather should focus on journalism by the process and actions taken. That makes much more sense, since today anyone can do journalism, even if they're not employed as a journalist.
However, the more I've seen this process play out, the more I'm convinced that any media shield law is a bad idea in that it tries to set up a separate tier of free speech in which a certain class of people or certain actions are "more protected" than others. The argument that we already have a media shield law known as the First Amendment is an increasingly compelling argument.
from the protection-based-on-exclusivity...-what-a-wonderful-idea dept
Legislators are still trying to put together a national "shield" law for journalists (this is the third such effort at a national level) and, as usual, are bogged down in a semantic debate about who should qualify for these protections. Despite "freedom of the press" being hardwired into the system and the fact that a government effort to protect journalists from its own actions (seeking to identify whistleblowers and sources in order to punish them or shut them up) lies somewhere between "ironic" and "disingenuous," the pursuit of a credible "shield" law continues.
The bill defines a journalist as a person who has a "primary intent to investigate events and procure material" in order to inform the public by regularly gathering information through interviews and observations.
It also adds this stipulation, which is a bit more troublesome.
The person also must intend to report on the news at the start of obtaining any protected information and must plan to publish that news.
I can see this stipulation working against whoever the government feels is worthy of the title "journalist." News develops. It seldom has a distinct starting point. Of course, if someone is a journalist, it stands to reason that they're always "planning" to publish their findings. But that might be a lot harder to prove when the government starts slinging subpoenas.
If someone sends a tip to a journalist, it may not be immediately evident that it is newsworthy. It might be some time before it's determined to be important, newsworthy and its source in need of protection. It's a strange stipulation and one that seems to poke some compromising holes in the "shield."
But onto the "who's really a journalist" argument. Some elected officials feel the language in the bill isn't specific enough. One in particular, Dianne Feinstein, repeated the stupid but inevitable phrase that always accompanies discussions related to shield laws:
Feinstein suggested that the definition comprise only journalists who make salaries, saying it should be applied just to "real reporters."
This is nothing new for Feinstein, who's (along with Sen. Dick Durbin) previously made the argument that acts of journalism can only be performed by major news agencies, cutting everyone else out of the protective loop. This is a protective move based partially on ignorance and partially on the reality that major news networks are easier to control, seeing as most aren't willing to give up access to the Beltway by pissing off its residents.
Sadly, this sort of reactionary ignorance isn't limited solely to government representatives. This same sort of statement has been made by published authors to demean the self-published and by old school journalists to demean bloggers, serial Tweeters and pretty much everyone not associated with a sinking masthead. Whenever someone assumes they're capable of determining who is or isn't a real whatever, they're usually speaking from a position of privilege, one that can only be maintained as long as the status remains quo.
The same goes for government officials arguing over the definition of "journalist." It's someone who performs the act of journalism. It's as simple as that. But if you accept this definition, then you put the government at a greater "risk" of not being able to pursue and punish those who expose its wrongdoing. Feinstein makes this governmental fear explicit in another comment.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., wondered whether it could be used to provide protections to employees of WikiLeaks, an organization that allows anonymous sources to leak information to the public.
"I’m concerned this would provide special privilege to those who are not reporters at all," she said.
Two things to note: One, the government would hate to see people like Snowden or Manning go unpunished because someone at Wikileaks was able to deflect subpoenas and court orders with these protections. Second, this isn't just a government push -- the news industry itself has expressed a willingness to sacrifice Wikileaks in order to expedite passage of a shield law.
It seems rather unlikely the government would extend this protection to entities like Wikileaks (especially not with major news agencies on board with selling out Wikileaks, etc.), but at least Sen. Schumer pointed out that Feinstein's belief that "real" equals "drawing a salary" was a very ignorant take on the current reality.
"The world has changed. We’re very careful in this bill to distinguish journalists from those who shouldn’t be protected, WikiLeaks and all those, and we’ve ensured that," Schumer said. "But there are people who write and do real journalism, in different ways than we’re used to. They should not be excluded from this bill."
If this bill is ever going to provide real protection for journalists, it will first have to recognize that journalism isn't defined by the journalist's employer, paycheck or association with a large media company. It's an act and it can be performed by nearly anyone. More importantly, the bill should be equally as concerned with building in strong consequences for government actions that undermine this protection. Without these, entities like the DOJ will hardly be dissuaded from using "unofficial channels" to seize phone records or trace email conversations in order to hunt down protected sources.