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Attorney General Holder says he’ll protect journalists’ rights

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Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. pledged Thursday to take concrete steps to address concerns that the Justice Department has overreached in its leak investigations and said officials would seek procedural and possibly legislative changes to protect journalists’ First Amendment rights.

Holder’s commitment came at a private meeting with news executives after criticism that the Justice Department had infringed on the news media in several high-profile leak investigations. Participants said he told them officials would revise guidelines for issuing subpoenas to obtain reporters’ phone records.

The 90-minute meeting was attended by a small group of journalists after several news organizations objected to the Justice Department’s insistence that it be held off the record. The participants, however, reached an agreement with the Justice Department under which they could describe what occurred during the meeting in general terms. The Justice Department is expected to meet with other news organizations and media lawyers in coming days.

Holder and aides “completely endorsed the president’s statement that reporters should not be at legal risk for doing their job,” said Martin Baron, The Washington Post’s executive editor, who was among the participants. “They acknowledged the need for changes in their own guidelines and the need to have a more rigorous internal review.”

A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment.

The Obama administration has sought to respond to the backlash over a pair of newly disclosed leak investigations by reasserting its commitment to a free press. The administration has called on Congress to pass a “media shield” law to guard against some legal attempts to force journalists to divulge confidential sources. Last week, President Obama said he had asked Holder to review the Justice Department’s guidelines for leak investigations and report back to him by mid-July.

At the same time, administration officials have defended the aggressive nature of the leak investigations, saying that in many of the cases the unauthorized disclosure of classified material has endangered national security. In one case, officials said, a 2009 Fox News report cited a U.S. intelligence conclusion that North Korea was likely to conduct additional nuclear tests. That report, broadcast just hours after a top-secret report was circulated inside the intelligence community, signaled that the CIA had “sources inside” the North, officials said.

During the meeting Thursday, journalists expressed concern about the chilling effect on reporters who now fear exposure of their sources and government officials who now fear the consequences of speaking candidly to the media. They were particularly concerned about the Justice Department’s secrecy in obtaining phone records from news organizations.

In one of the two newly disclosed cases, officials obtained records from more than 20 separate phone lines assigned to the Associated Press and its journalists. The AP was not notified until 90 days later, which is permitted under their current guidelines.

In addition to reviewing those guidelines, Holder and his deputy, James M. Cole, said Thursday that they would consider supporting statutory changes that would sharply reduce the chance that a journalist would be described as a possible “co-conspirator” in a crime as part of an effort to obtain a search warrant.

Justice Department officials stressed their obligation to balance national security interests with the need to allow journalists to do their work, according to participants, who said Holder appeared contrite at times during the meeting.

“I think it’s constructive that they are willing to address the criticisms of the department. But what will really matter is if they follow through and make some changes,” said Jane Mayer, a staff writer at the New Yorker who attended the meeting.

Several news organizations, including the Associated Press and the New York Times, declined to attend the meeting. Among those attending were representatives of the Wall Street Journal, Politico and the New York Daily News.

Current and former Justice Department officials said Thursday’s meeting was held off the record to allow for a candid conversation.

“It’s a policy meeting. If you put it on the record, it would become a press conference, and I’ve never seen a press conference that’s a good forum for making policy,” said Matthew Miller, a former Holder aide who remains a close friend. “If it was on the record, all you would get is posturing from both sides, and that’s not useful for anyone.”

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