WASHINGTON — Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., who has been criticized for the Justice Department’s aggressive tactics in secretly obtaining phone logs and emails of reporters as part of leak investigations, on Friday announced new guidelines that would significantly narrow the circumstances under which journalists’ records could be obtained.
A White House spokesman said President Barack Obama supported the Justice Department’s changes as well as its call, at the end of a report on the revisions, to more often find ways to deal with leaks of classified information that fall short of criminal investigations. Under Obama, prosecutors have filed charges in seven leak-related cases to date, compared with three such cases under all previous presidents combined.
“There are circumstances in which leaks are better addressed through administrative means, such as withdrawal of security clearances or imposition of other sanctions,” said Matt Lehrich, the White House spokesman. “The president agrees with the Justice Department’s recommendation and has directed his team to explore how the administration could more effectively use alternatives in appropriate cases.”
In a six-page report, Holder outlined changes to the Justice Department’s investigative guidelines that would prevent the FBI from portraying a reporter as a co-conspirator in a criminal leak as a way to get around a legal bar on secret search warrants for reporting materials.
The revisions would also make it harder — though not impossible — for prosecutors to obtain a journalist’s calling records from telephone companies without advance notice. Notifying news organizations in advance would give them a chance to contest the request in court.
“The Department of Justice is 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 said. “These revised guidelines will help ensure the proper balance is struck when pursuing investigations into unauthorized disclosures.”
Investigators’ targeting of the communications records of Associated Press and Fox News reporters in separate investigations came to light in May, setting off a furor, among journalists and in Congress, about the administration’s increasingly aggressive record on leak inquiries.
Two months ago, Obama gave Holder a July 12 deadline to review the rules and make recommendations. Holder held a series of meetings with newsroom leaders and lawyers for media companies, along with lawmakers and First Amendment scholars, in May and June, and briefed Obama about the changes at the White House on Friday morning.