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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.

Attorney General Eric Holder testifies before the House Judiciary Committee in May 2013 about the secret gathering of telephone records at The Associated Press. The Justice Department has now revised its guidelines on when it can seek such records.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP

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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.

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.


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