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Attorney General Holder raises standards for investigating leaks

Following controversy over the Justice Department's probe into journalists' records, Attorney General Eric Holder on Friday announced new, stricter guidelines for the department's investigations involving news media.

The policy revisions, Holder said in report outlining the changes, are intended to "ensure the Department strikes the appropriate balance between two vital interests: protecting the American people by pursuing those who violate their oaths through unlawful disclosures of information and safeguarding the essential role of a free press in fostering government accountability and an open society."

The new policies call for Justice Department attorneys to give news media prior notice whenever they are seeking access to records related to newsgathering activities, except in rare cases. The policy change comes after revelations in May that the Justice Department obtained two months' worth of phone records from Associated Press journalists without giving the AP any advance notice. Under the new rules, such records could only be obtained without prior notice if the attorney general determines that giving notice "would pose a clear and substantial threat to the integrity of the investigation."

The new policies also elevate the requirements for issuing search warrants and court orders directed at news media. For instance, the Privacy and Protection Act prohibits the search or seizure of work for public dissemination, with certain exceptions for various materials, including those pertaining to classified information. The new rules would not let Justice Department attorneys use that exception to seize a journalist's work if the sole purpose is the investigation of a person other than the journalist.

According to Holder's report, the Justice Department is also establishing a "news media review committee" to advise department when it is seeking media-related records, as well as a "news media dialogue group" to maintain a dialogue with journalists.

The new rules also establish formal safeguards for handling information and call on the Justice Department to regularly consult with the intelligence community with respect to the value of the information it is seeking.

Holder's report also stresses that the Obama administration supports a media shield law, which would codify these sort of policy changes into law. "While these reforms will make a meaningful difference, there are additional protections that only Congress can provide," Holder said in a statement.

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