May 31, 2013 -- The Justice Department will weigh journalists' concerns and modify its guidelines for investigating potential national security leaks, Attorney General Eric Holder told media outlets today.
ABC News Washington bureau chief Robin Sproul and John Zucker, deputy chief counsel of ABC, Inc., attended the second of three meetings attorney general Eric Holder is holding with major news organizations. Also in attendance were two representatives of Thompson Reuters.
Although the meeting was technically off the record, an agreement was reached by all parties to allow the news organizations to report on the general areas of discussion and to discuss some specifics as well.
Both ABC and Thompson Reuters representatives expressed deep concern over recent probes of the Associated Press and a Fox News reporter that occurred as the department investigated potential leaks of classified information.
Both ABC and Reuters expressed the need for change in the 1972 Department of Justice guidelines for issuing subpoenas to and investigating members of the news media.
"The meeting was productive. There was a frank discussion of the challenges facing both the government and the news media in protecting the public's right to the free flow of information," ABC's Sproul said afterward. "A good result would be modified Department of Justice guidelines that set a higher bar for when and under what conditions the government can subpoena journalists."
Two recent, high-profile cases have thrown Justice Department practices into question.
First, the Associated Press revealed that the department had seized phone records for Associated Press reporters and offices in attempting to identify the source of a leak. The AP protested the measure as a violation of First Amendment rights.
Second, The Washington Post reported that the FBI had tracked the comings and goings of Fox News reporter James Rosen and suggested he may have committed a crime in an affidavit seeking access to his Gmail emails.
The attorney general said that members of the news media had legitimate concerns about guidelines for investigations where reporters are concerned.
At the president's direction, Holder will recommend changes to the guidelines and other policies dealing with investigations of journalists by July 12. The attorney general said it would be a missed opportunity if the Department of Justice did not come up with meaningful changes as a result of the meetings he is holding with journalists.
Holder said he would use this opportunity to strike a better balance between the interests of investigators and the interest of journalists than what now exists when the Justice Department is conducting such investigations.
Specific areas of discussion included the circumstances under which the DoJ notifies news organizations about an investigation and the issuance of subpoenas for phone records and the use of labels in describing journalists during an investigation, such as the use of "co-conspirator" in describing Rosen. Other areas discussed included the need to update the guidelines to include digital surveillance, and the definition of who is a journalist.
The attorney general said that following the first three meetings, he will continue to reach out to news organizations for specific proposals to modify the guidelines going forward. He also reiterated his support for passage of a federal shield law.
Holder met with print outlets on Thursday, giving them the same indication.
That meeting included Washington Post Executive Editor Martin Baron, Politico Editor in Chief John Harris, Wall Street Journal Washington Bureau Chief Gerald Selb, The New Yorker reporter Jane Mayer, and New York Daily News Washington Bureau Chief Jim Warren, Politico reported on Thursday.
At that meeting, Holder and Deputy Attorney General James Cole presented few or no specifics on how the Justice Department planned to change its procedures and solicited suggestions from the journalists in attendance, Politico reported.