By Susan Heavey and David Ingram
WASHINGTON May 30 Several U.S. news
organizations rejected an offer by Attorney General Eric Holder
to meet and discuss how the Justice Department handles
investigations that involve reporters, saying it would be
inappropriate to talk in secret.
However, representatives of five other media outlets went
ahead with a meeting on Thursday, arriving at the Justice
Department's headquarters to see Holder after recent disclosures
that federal prosecutors had seized journalists' records without
Justice Department officials said the meetings were "part of
the review of existing Justice Department guidelines governing
investigations that involve reporters."
Reuters, CNN, The New York Times
and the Associated Press declined to meet with Holder, President
Barack Obama's top law enforcement official, because the
meetings were due to be "off the record," meaning they could not
be recorded or reported.
The journalists who did attend the initial meeting were
James Warren of the New York Daily News, Jane Mayer of The New
Yorker, John Harris of Politico, Gerald Seib of The Wall Street
Journal and Martin Baron of The Washington Post. They
entered the Justice Department through the main entrance.
It was unclear how many media companies were invited or
would attend other meetings planned for Friday.
The talks followed the Obama administration's decision to
search the email and phone records of Fox News, and the phone
records of the Associated Press, as part of investigations into
leaks of secret government information.
The seizure of records, and an FBI agent's description of
Fox News reporter James Rosen as a potential criminal
co-conspirator, led to an outcry from journalists and advocates
of free speech and prompted new calls for a federal law
protecting reporters' work.
That led to a debate in Washington over how the Obama
administration is balancing the need for national security with
privacy rights. Along with a separate furor over the Internal
Revenue Service's targeting of conservative political groups for
extra scrutiny, it also stoked fears of excessive government
intrusion under Obama.
Holder personally authorized the searches of Fox News
records as the Justice Department investigated a leak regarding
North Korea, a department official said on Tuesday.
James Cole, the deputy attorney general, authorized the
search of the Associated Press records as part of an
investigation into a leak about U.S. counterterrorism operations
Holder has echoed Obama in saying that leaks of classified
information pose security risks and must stop.
OFF THE RECORD
Harris, Politico's editor in chief, said he routinely has
off-the-record conversations to discuss news coverage and news
gathering practices, and would attend the meeting with Holder.
"I feel anyone - whether an official or ordinary reader -
should be able to have an unguarded conversation with someone in
a position of accountability for a news organization when there
is good reason," he said in an email quoted on Politico's
Bloomberg News told Reuters it would also attend.
Baron, The Washington Post's executive editor, said he would
prefer to meet on the record, but that "journalists routinely
participate in off-the-record sessions, whether they prefer
those conditions or not, and then continue to report on events."
A spokesman for ABC News said it would attend but
would "press for that conversation to be put on the record."
Some other media outlets declined.
"We would welcome the opportunity to hear the attorney
general's explanation for the Department of Justice's handling
of subpoenas to journalists, and his thoughts about improving
the protections afforded to media organizations in responding to
government investigations, but believe firmly that his comments
should be for publication," said Reuters spokesperson Barb Burg.
New York Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson said in a
statement on Wednesday that an off-the-record meeting with the
attorney general "isn't appropriate." She said the newspaper's
lawyer would likely meet later with other Justice Department
officials "on how the law should be applied in leak cases."
The Associated Press also said the meetings should be open
to coverage. If they were not, the AP would "offer our views on
how the regulations should be updated in an open letter" and
follow up with its lawyers, AP spokeswoman Erin Madigan White
said in a statement.
Television networks Fox News, CBS and CNN as well as
online news group The Huffington Post also said they would not
attend. NBC said it had not decided.
Holder wanted a "constructive policy discussion with
professional journalists," said White House spokesman Josh
Earnest. "We are hopeful that media organizations will take
advantage of the opportunity to constructively contribute to the
process," he told reporters aboard Air Force One.
Prompted by the Rosen search and the seizure of the
Associated Press' phone records, Obama announced last week that
Holder would begin a review of Justice Department procedures
related to media records.
Obama and Holder both said they favored a federal "shield
law" for the media that would protect journalists from being
compelled to disclose their records in most cases.