The Justice Department says there is no need for a federal shield law to protect journalists from being forced to reveal their sources. Protections already are in place, an assistant attorney general told the House Judiciary Committee last week.

This is the same Justice Department whose policies allowed a special prosecutor to arrest and jail reporter Judith Miller for 85 days simply because she refused to turn over her notes to a story she never published. Those notes supposedly would have helped the prosecutor learn who within the Bush administration had leaked the name of a CIA operative.

Even after this abuse of power, the case ended in no charges related to the leak. The leak itself wasn't actually a crime. I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, former chief of staff to the vice president, was sentenced to 30 months in prison — not because he leaked anyone's name, but because he lied to investigators about it.

Obviously, shield laws face an uphill battle before any political body. That's because they make it easier for whistle-blowers to tell the world about wrongdoing within the government. The United States enjoys its position of strength and envy in the world largely because its citizens have the right to examine the government and comment freely on its actions. Often, those who report abuses will do so only under the cloak of secrecy. Ultimately, their claims will stand or fall based on an examination of the facts.

But allegations are embarrassing for politicians, who typically like to control information.

And so the shield law appears headed for defeat again, despite a change of political control in Congress. The president's displeasure with the bill, communicated through the assistant attorney general, has put an end to it.

The bill was written in such a way as to ensure that reporters still could be compelled to testify when the information they have could prevent "imminent and actual" harm to the nation, or when it could prevent someone from being hurt or killed. Journalists would not be able to withhold information about a person's health or trade secrets.

Maybe it would pass if an exemption were made for anything that would embarrass a politician. But then the bill would be as worthless as the Justice Department's assurances that protections already are in place.