WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama instructed Attorney General Eric Holder on Thursday to review Justice Department guidelines for leak investigations, meet with media organizations and report back to him by mid-July.
In a speech to the National Defense University, Obama addressed the uproar over his administration’s numerous leak investigations, saying he is “troubled” that the inquiries might “chill” investigative journalism. But he also emphasized that certain information must remain secret to protect national security.
“As commander in chief, I believe we must keep information secret that protects our operations and our people in the field,” Obama said. “To do so, we must enforce consequences for those who break the law and breach their commitment to protect classified information. But a free press is also essential for our democracy.”
The president’s call for a review of DOJ guidelines comes 10 days after it was disclosed that the Justice Department secretly obtained records from a two-month period for 20 telephone and cellular lines of journalists working for The Associated Press in Washington, New York and Hartford, Connecticut. The subpoena for the records was part of a year-long investigation of the disclosure of classified information about a failed al-Qaida plot last year.
Court papers last week also disclosed that, in another leak investigation, the Justice Department obtained a search warrant for Fox News Channel reporter James Rosen’s personal email and used security badge access records to track his comings and goings from the State Department.
The disclosures provoked an outcry from media organizations and government secrecy groups. Representatives from news organizations said they welcome the opportunity to sit down with Holder.
“It’s been an astonishing couple of weeks because of the disclosures that have come out, not just about DOJ subpoena policy but also about its willingness to pursue journalists’ records through search warrants,” said Bruce Brown, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
The committee, on behalf of more than four dozen news organizations, sent a letter to Holder and his deputy that rejected what it called “an overreaching dragnet for newsgathering materials” in the AP case. The letter demanded that the Justice Department destroy the phone records and disclose all other pending subpoenas related to the media.
Obama did not address the specific cases, but he said the administration’s focus in leak investigations should not be on reporters, but on government officials who release classified information.