Justice Department curbs its ability to target journalists over leaks

McClatchy Washington BureauJuly 12, 2013 

— Attorney General Eric Holder, who’s been under fire in recent months for targeting reporters as part of leak investigations, released revised guidelines Friday that would make it more difficult for the federal government to seize journalists’ email and phone records.

The guidelines call for more oversight by senior officials in media-related cases and additional barriers to obtaining a search warrant for a journalist’s records unless that reporter is the focus of a criminal investigation.

The guidelines come after the public learned that the Justice Department had secretly seized the telephone records of reporters at the Associated Press and had investigated a Fox News correspondent as a potential criminal for doing his job as part of President Barack Obama’s unprecedented crackdown on classified national security leaks.

All requests for records now will be sent to the Criminal Division’s Office of Enforcement Operations and then to the attorney general. The new guidelines also call for creating a standing committee to advise the attorney general and deputy attorney general about media-related cases. In addition, Justice Department employees will undergo better training to deal with such cases.

Obama, who’s said he was trying to strike a balance between the news media’s First Amendment protections against government censorship and the nation’s national security interests, directed Holder to review his department’s guidelines for investigations that involve reporters. The president has said repeatedly that he isn’t interested in prosecuting reporters.

Holder briefed Obama about the revised guidelines at the White House earlier Friday after the attorney general had spent the last two months speaking to editors and media lawyers. Some editors declined to participate in the meetings because they were closed to the media for reporting purposes.

Holder wrote in his six-page report to the president that he couldn’t change certain policies, such as those related to subpoenas, without congressional action. He pledged that the administration would work with Congress to pass a reporter shield law, now pending in the Senate.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers from the House of Representatives has introduced a bill that would require court approval when the government demands phone records from service providers. A Democratic senator has reintroduced a media shield measure that would offer legal protections to journalists engaged in newsgathering activities.

“The guidelines make a good deal of sense and, combined with our bipartisan media shield bill, should provide the bank shot necessary to deal with the long-standing problem of how the government seeks answers from the media about leaks,” said Senator Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., the author of the legislation.

Email: akumar@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @anitakumar01

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