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Our Opinion: Protect journalists and sources now, more than ever

If Republicans in the U.S. Senate really want to find out what the Obama administration is up to, they should bring to the Senate floor a bill creating a federal shield law for reporters, and let journalists do their jobs. The bill, S. 987, which has languished since it passed out of committee last fall, is especially important because this administration is the least transparent since Richard Nixon's.

The latest blow against the ability of reporters to reveal the inner workings of government came Monday, when the Supreme Court rejected the appeal of Pulitzer Prize winner James Risen of the New York Times. Risen has refused to identify confidential sources he used in writing his 2006 book, "State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration."

In 2011, the Justice Department — that would be the Obama Justice Department — subpoenaed Risen to testify in a criminal trial about his sources. The government is prosecuting a CIA officer it believes gave Risen information for his book, one chapter of which detailed the CIA's failed attempt to sabotage Iran's nuclear program.

A federal judge ruled Risen could not be compelled to disclose his confidential sources because the First Amendment and common law established a "reporter's privilege" protecting Risen unless the government could show his testimony was vital to its case.

An appeals court overturned that ruling, and Risen appealed to the Supreme Court, which on Monday declined to hear it. Risen now faces potential jail time.

His odyssey through the courts could have been avoided had Congress passed a shield law. Shield laws or statutory protections are on the books in 49 states, including Oregon, and in the District of Columbia, but federal law still lacks any protection for journalists fulfilling their function in a free society of revealing the inner workings of government.

Although they are referred to as "reporters' shield laws," the statutes really protect sources, who are understandably fearful of repercussions if they reveal information the government wants kept secret.

Some government secrets are necessary to protect national security — which is why there are exemptions in shield laws and in the pending Senate legislation to allow the government to obtain information when national security is involved.

The Senate bill has bipartisan support, but most of the holdouts are Republicans who have no particular fondness for the Obama administration. And this administration has proven to be not the most transparent in history, as Obama promised when he took office, but quite the opposite.

This administration has pursued criminal charges against six government employees and two contractors since 2009 under the 1917 Espionage Act for giving classified information to reporters. A grand total of three such prosecutions occurred under all previous administrations combined.

Even routine day-to-day reporting is more difficult under Obama's administration, as the White House staff exercises extreme control over the release of even the most innocuous information, and government officials are consistently reluctant to speak to reporters at all, referring them to official posts on the White House website.

Leonard Downie Jr., former executive editor of The Washington Post who participated in the paper's investigation of the Watergate scandal, wrote in a special report last year that "the Obama administration's war on leaks and other efforts to control information are the most aggressive I've seen since the Nixon administration," and 30 veteran Washington journalists he interviewed could not remember any precedent.

Those Senate Republicans — who include Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and John McCain — can do their country a service by providing the same protection for confidential sources that nearly every state already does. Journalists will do the rest.