Attorney General Eric Holder, 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 report comes after the public learned that the Justice Department had secretly seized telephone records of reporters at the Associated Press and investigated a Fox News reporter as a potential criminal for doing his job as part of President Barack Obama’s unprecedented crackdown on classified national security leaks.
All request for records will now be sent to the Criminal Division’s Office of Enforcement Operations and then the attorney general. The Justice Department will create a standing committee to advise the attorney general and deputy attorney general about media-related cases. Justice Department employees will undergo better training.
Obama, who has said he was trying to strike a balance between the media’s First Amendment protections against government censorship and the United States’ national security interests, directed Holder to review the Justice Department’s guidelines for investigations that involve reporters.
Obama has said repeatedly he is not interested in prosecuting reporters. Holder briefed Obama about the report at the White House earlier Friday after the attorney general 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.
But Holder wrote in his six-page report to Obama that he could not change certain policies, such as those related to subpoenas, without congressional action. Holder urges Congress to pass a reporter shield law, now pending in the Senate.
A group of House of Representatives members from both parties have 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 law that offers 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 longstanding problem of how the government seeks answers from the media about leaks,” Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., author of a media shield bill.