Justice Department backs off on secret seizure of reporters’ records
The Justice Department has revised its guidelines on when it can probe the phone and email records of journalists as part of an effort to stem government leaks. This comes after the controversial secret seizure of Associated Press and Fox News records.
Under heavy criticism from media organizations and others, the Obama administration has pulled back on one important aspect of its crackdown on government leaks: the ability of prosecutors to secretly seize reporters' records while investigating leaks to the media.Skip to next paragraph
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In an announcement Friday, the Justice Department said it is toughening the guidelines for subpoenaing reporters' phone records while also raising the standard the government needs to meet before it can issue search warrants to gather reporters' email.
Attorney General Eric Holder said in a statement that the department was "firmly committed to ensuring our nation's security, and protecting the American people, while at the same time safeguarding the freedom of the press."
Holder also endorsed the proposal for a shield law that would protect reporters.
"While these reforms will make a meaningful difference, there are additional protections that only Congress can provide," he said. "For that reason, we continue to support the passage of media shield legislation."
The new guidelines come after a firestorm of protest involving two episodes in the hunt for government leakers: a secret Justice Department subpoena of almost two months of telephone records for 21 phone lines used by reporters and editors for The Associated Press and the use of a secret warrant to obtain some emails of a Fox News journalist.
The Justice Department said it will now create a “News Media Review Committee” to advise its top officials when the department seeks media-related records in investigations.
Among other things, the government will have to give advance notice to the news media about subpoena requests for reporters' phone records unless the attorney general determines that "for compelling reasons" such notice would pose a clear and substantial threat to the integrity of the leak investigation.
"It is expected that only the rare case would present the attorney general with the requisite compelling reasons to justify a delayed notification," the Justice Department report issued Friday said.
Also under the new guidelines, the government will issue search warrants directed at a reporter's email only when that reporter is the focus of a criminal investigation for conduct not connected to ordinary newsgathering activities.