WASHINGTON (AP) — The Justice Department announced Friday that it is toughening its guidelines for subpoenaing reporters' phone records, and also raising the standard the government needs to meet before it can issue search warrants to gather reporters' email.
The changes follow disclosures that the Justice Department secretly subpoenaed almost two months of telephone records for 21 phone lines used by reporters and editors for The Associated Press and secretly used a warrant to obtain some emails of a Fox News journalist. After a barrage of criticism from lawmakers, the news media and civil liberties groups, Obama ordered Attorney General Eric Holder to review the Justice Department's policy on obtaining such material, and set Friday as the deadline.
In announcing the changes, the Justice Department said it will create a News Media Review Committee to advise its top officials when the department seeks media-related records in investigations.
Under one of the changes being made, the government must 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 investigation. That's a change from the current procedure, which puts the decision in the hands of the assistant attorney general for the criminal division, with review by the attorney general.
"It is expected that only the rare case would present the attorney general with the requisite compelling reasons to justify a delayed notification," the report said.
In another change, the government will issue search warrants directed at a reporter's email only when that member of the news media is the focus of a criminal investigation for conduct not connected to ordinary newsgathering activities.
"Under this revised policy, the department would not seek search warrants ... if the sole purpose is the investigation of a person other than the member of the news media," the report stated.
The report also said the department would revise current policy to elevate to the attorney general the approval requirements for all search warrants directed at members of the news media.
In the AP story that triggered one of the leak probes, the news organization reported that U.S. intelligence had learned that al-Qaida's Yemen branch hoped to launch a spectacular attack using a new, nearly undetectable bomb aboard a U.S.-bound airliner around the anniversary of Osama bin Laden's death.
In the Fox News story, reporter James Rosen reported that U.S. intelligence officials had warned Obama and senior U.S. officials that North Korea would respond to a United Nations Security Council resolution condemning nuclear tests with another nuclear test.