Attorney general, top journalists discuss prosecutors’ latitude in leak investigations

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly incorrectly said that the attorney general’s approval is not necessary for subpoenas seeking information related to ordinary newsgathering. In fact, that rule applies to information unrelated to ordinary newsgathering.

What is ordinary about “ordinary newsgathering”?

That question was at the heart of discussions Tuesday between Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. and a group of media representatives over rules that guide federal prosecutors in their pursuit of leaks of classified information.

Justice officials and journalists met at the Justice Department to fine-tune a government policy that covers the use of subpoenas, court orders and search warrants to obtain information from journalists who have produced stories based on classified material and confidential sources.

The discussions grew out of objections by news organizations that prosecutors overreached in 2012 when they secretly subpoenaed and seized the phone records of Associated Press reporters to discover their sources for a story that disclosed that the CIA, in a secret operation earlier that year, foiled a terrorist plot in Yemen.

In addition, department officials in 2009 also secretly gathered the phone and e-mail records of Fox News’s James Rosen and said there was “probable cause” to believe he was a “co-conspirator” after he reported on North Korea’s nuclear-testing program using classified information.

Tuesday’s discussions were about the circumstances under which the attorney general is required to authorize a subpoena to seek records from a news organization.

The group of journalists — which included Leonard Downie Jr., former executive editor of The Washington Post, and Bill Keller, former executive editor of the New York Times — wants the attorney general to be the official to approve all subpoenas aimed at news organizations, instead of deferring such authorization to lower-ranking officials. The intent is to create maximum accountability for any federal investigation into journalists’ activities.

The discussion focused significantly on a key word: Ordinary.

The department’s rules say that the attorney general’s authorization is not necessary for subpoenas that seek information unrelated to “ordinary newsgathering activities.”

The journalists, however, countered that the vague term gave the government too much discretion to determine what was “ordinary” journalistic practice and what was unusual. They want the term stricken from the policy.

The use of that term “surprised and alarmed” the journalists, Downie said. One of his colleagues at the meeting called the word “a loophole the government could drive a truck through” — because the adjective would give the government great latitude to issue subpoenas without the attorney general’s authorization.

A Justice official said that the media representatives made some “compelling points” and agreed to take their arguments into consideration. But he said the officials did not commit to changing their rules.

The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said there would be further discussions with lawyers representing news organizations, including the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

The group of journalists included New Yorker writer Jane Mayer; ABC News bureau chief Robin Sproul; the Wall Street Journal’s Washington bureau chief, Gerald Seib; Susan Page of USA Today; and Steve Coll, dean of the Columbia School of Journalism and former managing editor of The Post.

The media representatives also questioned department officials about cases in which federal prosecutors seek testimony from journalists regarding sources — in particular, that of New York Times reporter James Risen, who has appealed a series of court decisions compelling his testimony over national security reporting in 2006.

“As long as I’m attorney general, no reporter will go to jail for doing his job,” Holder said at the meeting, according to people who attended it. The department, however, said that Holder wasn’t speaking about any particular case and that he was reiterating a long-held position.

Risen is in legal jeopardy in a case that steams from his 2006 book, “State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration,” in which he detailed classified information about the CIA’s efforts to disrupt Iran’s nuclear program. Prosecutors want Risen to reveal his sources as part of the prosecution of Jeffrey Sterling, a former CIA analyst. Holder’s statement suggests that Risen will not face jail time if he continues to withhold the name of his sources, as he has vowed to do.

Risen has appealed a lower-court decision compelling his testimony to the Supreme Court, which will consider taking up the case this week. Risen did not return requests for comment.

Paul Farhi is The Washington Post's media reporter.
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