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White House pans reporter shield bill

WASHINGTON -- Under fire for presidential adviser Karl Rove's role in the leak of an undercover CIA agent's identity, the Bush administration yesterday labeled as ''bad public policy" legislation to protect reporters from being jailed when they refuse to reveal their sources.

Deputy Attorney General James Comey canceled his appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee just before a hearing on the issue was to begin yesterday morning. In prepared remarks already submitted to the panel, Comey said the measure would ''create serious impediments" to the Justice Department's ability ''to effectively enforce the law and fight terrorism."

''The bill is bad public policy primarily because it would bar the government from obtaining information about media sources -- even in the most urgent of circumstances affecting the public's health or safety or national security," Comey's prepared remarks said.

Thirty-one states and the District of Columbia have such ''shield" laws, but there is no set of standards that applies in federal courts.

Comey canceled his Senate appearance to meet with House Republican leaders on the Patriot Act, Justice Department spokeswoman Tasia Scolinos said.

The panel is considering a bill sponsored by Senator Richard Lugar and Representative Mike Pence, both Indiana Republicans, that would protect reporters from being imprisoned by federal courts.

Two weeks ago, a federal judge sent New York Times reporter Judith Miller to jail for refusing to divulge who told her that Valerie Plame, the wife of former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, was a CIA officer. Miller never actually wrote a story using the name of the formerly undercover CIA officer.

The bill would stop short of giving reporters absolute immunity. In response to a request from Justice, the sponsors added an exception for cases where source identification is essential for protecting national security.

A journalist who did publish Plame's identity, Time magazine's Matt Cooper, barely escaped being sent to jail when he said his source, Rove, had released him from their confidentiality agreement. He told the committee that protecting reporters and their sources is key to the media's ability to shine light on government wrongdoing.

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