Ahead of the omnibus spending bill set to be released late Monday night, one of the staunchest defenders of press freedom and whistleblower rights in the Senate — Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa — told The Intercept he doesn’t think that the PRESS Act will be included in the year-end legislation. “I don’t think so,” Grassley said. The legislation, also known as the Protect Reporters from Exploitative State Spying Act, seeks to protect journalists from government efforts to compel them to disclose the identities of their sources.
Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., a rabid opponent of the legislation and the protections it seeks to advance, argued on the Senate floor that the Pentagon Papers represented an example of criminal behavior by the media intended to influence public opinion against the war in Vietnam, and stood in as a reason to block the PRESS Act.
Asked if he was blocking the bill at Cotton’s behest, Grassley said he wasn’t sure. “Gosh, I’ve been listening to Sen. Cotton on two or three different things so I don’t know for sure,” he said in a brief hallway interview. Sources on and off the Hill involved in the push for the legislation said that Grassley was privately supportive of the bill, but declined to put it forward at the behest of Cotton. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., could override Grassley, but doing so in the direction of advancing press freedom and protection for whistleblowers is unlikely.
Senate leadership attempted to pass the PRESS Act last week, but the unanimous consent vote was blocked by Cotton. “This bill would prohibit the government from compelling any individual who calls himself a ‘journalist’ from disclosing the source or substance of such damaging leaks,” Cotton said. “This effectively would grant journalists special legal privileges to disclose sensitive information that no other citizen enjoys. It would treat the press as a special caste of ‘crusaders for truth’ who are somehow set apart from their fellow citizens.”
Cotton’s hostility to the press, and specifically journalists engaged in uncovering governmental wrongdoing with the help of leakers, stretches back to his military deployment in Iraq, when he advocated for harsh criminal penalties for journalists in the pages of the New York Times. His stance on freedom of the press couldn’t be more different from that of Grassley, who is founder and co-chair of the Senate Whistleblower Caucus.
For decades Grassley has advanced legislation seeking to protect whistleblowers and root out government corruption and wrongdoing. He successfully oversaw the passage of multiple bills which create protections and incentives for government employees to blow the whistle on fraud and corruption, resulting in tens of billions of dollars returned to the U.S. government, and billions more in fines levied by the SEC and CFTC.
He has also worked to strengthen the powers and protection of the U.S. inspectors general charged with overseeing and investigating dozens of federal agencies. More recently he has advanced legislation to enhance and strengthen the Freedom of Information Act to ensure strong transparency in government.
“The press, unfortunately, has a long and sordid history of publishing sensitive information from inside the government that damages our national security,” Cotton said last week while dooming the passage of the PRESS Act on the Senate floor. When asked whether he had successfully convinced Grassley to remove PRESS Act language from the omnibus bill, Cotton told The Intercept, “No comment.”