Attorney General Eric Holder told U.S. news organizations he’ll consider tightening rules on when and how federal investigators may seize telephone records and other information to identify reporters’ confidential sources.
At a meeting yesterday with representatives of the Los Angeles Times, USA Today and Bloomberg News, Holder said a consistent concern that he has heard from journalists is that the recent records seizures in leak probes were made without notice, preventing targets from challenging the actions or seeking to limit their scope.
Holder pledged to weigh the issue as he reviews department guidelines, a process President Barack Obama ordered completed by July 12, said Susan Goldberg, a Bloomberg News executive editor in Washington and one of the participants. In a May 30 session, Holder didn’t commit to specific steps, said James Warren, The Daily News of New York’s Washington bureau chief.
“We forthrightly pressed a variety of concerns to Holder and his top aides while they expressed some of the challenges they face in balancing national security and free-press interests,” Warren said. “I felt it was a worthwhile, if not path-breaking session.”
The attorney general began meeting with news organizations after an uproar over his department’s tactics in probing leaks. In one case, investigators secretly subpoenaed records of calls during a two-month period to and from the general office lines of four Associated Press news bureaus, as well as reporters’ mobile and home phones.
Obama said he was “troubled” by the possibility that hunting down leak sources “may chill” investigative reporting, in a May 23 speech in which he announced the Justice Department’s review. At the same time, the president has defended the investigations, arguing that the leaks involved disclosure of classified national-security information.
Under Obama and Holder, the Justice Department has prosecuted more government officials for alleged news leaks using the World War I-era Espionage Act than all prior attorneys general combined.
Less than two weeks after the AP investigation was revealed, a court filing disclosed that the department, in a separate probe regarding classified information about North Korea, got a warrant to search Fox News reporter James Rosen’s personal e-mail and obtained his telephone records.
Holder pledged to consider changes to department procedures to give greater weight to journalists’ concerns over aggressive leak investigations, Warren said. Along with Warren, Holder met May 30 with representatives of the Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The New Yorker and Politico. It was the first of several meetings with media and free-press advocates.
Lawyers accompanied the Washington editors for Bloomberg News, USA Today and the Los Angeles Times when they met with Holder. A group that included ABC News representatives participated in an earlier session with the attorney general.
Some organizations, including the New York Times, AP, Reuters and CBS News, declined to participate in the first meeting May 30 because the Justice Department insisted that the discussion be off-the-record. During the session, participants agreed to revise the ground rules to allow reporting of the talks in general terms.
Participants in Holder’s meeting with Bloomberg News were free to describe the conversations.
The Justice Department and Holder have faced a backlash from U.S. lawmakers of both parties and media organizations since the public disclosure on May 13 that investigators secretly obtained telephone records for more than 20 phone lines used by AP reporters.
Investigators got information on general lines used by reporters in the news service’s bureaus in New York City, Washington, Hartford, Connecticut, and the U.S. House of Representatives. Because the authorizing court order was kept secret, the news agency was prevented from asking a judge to block it or limit its scope.
The U.S. attorney’s office in Washington informed the AP on May 10 that prosecutors had obtained the records.
Fourteen Republican members of the House Judiciary Committee sent a letter to Deputy Attorney General James Cole, who supervised the investigation, requesting details of the decision to seize the AP telephone records, including questions about the scope of the subpoena.
Holder recused himself from the AP probe because he was interviewed by the FBI as part of it. He participated in the decision on the Fox News warrant, the Justice Department said.
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina has called for the appointment of a special counsel or independent investigator to look into the Justice Department’s actions.
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