In a contentious Senate panel hearing about what protections should be available to journalists who receive government secrets, Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions (R) said that "historically, spies have been shot for revealing information," and that the thinking on a shield law for journalists should proceed forth from that point.
The Associated Press reported that the Senate hearing convened in order to arrive at an official definition of what persons can be defined as journalists under the law. The definition has been a sticking point in recent cases in which the government has tried to force journalists to reveal their sources for classified government information.
Earlier this year, journalists and editors working for the Associated Press found out that the Department of Justice had tapped and recorded their phone calls for more than two months. The Justice Department also used warrants to obtain the emails of Fox News reporter James Rosen.
In each case, the government maintained that it was attempting to police its internal workings for leakers, but journalists argue that in order to be free to fight government corruption and authoritarian overreach they need a measure of privacy under the law.
The Senate panel voted 13-5 for a compromise definition of a "covered journalist" as being "an employee, independent contractor or agent of an entity that disseminates news or information and would have to have worked in that capacity for at least one year of the last 20 months or three of the last five years.
Three Democrats, Sens. Chuck Schumer (NY), Dianne Feinstein (CA) and Dick Durbin (IL) hammered out the compromise proposal over the objections of Sessions, who said, "There is not a demand that we pass this legislation."
Sessions asserted that no journalist should feel safe intercepting classified information.
"It raises the question, do we need to do this?" he said. "Why haven't we done it since the founding of the Republic?"
"The Executive Branch," he argued, "is the relevant branch to set classification standards. We've approved that. We can change their ability to do that through legislation if we desire, but that's what it's set up."
"And historically, spies were shot," he insisted, "if they revealed information helpful to the enemy."
Under the guidelines agreed upon by the panel today, the government must go before a judge and demonstrate the need to subpoena any information before it can ask the journalist to reveal a source. Reporters also must be notified within 45 days of such a request by the government.
Watch the video, embedded below via YouTube: