Protecting Press Sources

President Bush enjoys an amiable relationship with the Fourth Estate. He and the journalists who cover him are able to kid around with each other.

But there can be no kidding if Mr. Bush toys with restricting the freedom of journalists to tap official sources for news on public issues.

Until this week, Bush was considering the possibility of supporting a bill that would make it a felony for government workers to release any classified information.

Such a measure would go way beyond present laws that make it a crime to leak information that harms national security. It would prevent the press from acting as a watchdog on government abuses through leaks from official sources.

President Clinton vetoed such a bill last year; some Bush officials said this week that they are cool to endorsing it. The White House should let it drop.

It should also look into another press-freedom case: the Justice Department's subpoena of the home-telephone records of an Associated Press reporter who wrote about a wiretap conversation of Sen. Robert Torricelli (D) of New Jersey while covering the federal probe of the senator.

Leaks from wiretaps and grand juries are serious offenses, but the government should probe its own ranks and not step on the First Amendment, which protects journalists while doing their work. Invading the privacy of reporters sends a chilling message to potential news sources that their identities cannot be protected if they hand over critical information to the press.

That's nothing to kid about.

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