WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Several U.S. news organizations spurned 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.
A number of other media organizations said they would attend a series of meetings starting Thursday that Holder scheduled following disclosures that his prosecutors seized journalist records without warning.
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 enforcer, because the meetings were due to be “off the record,” meaning they could not be recorded or reported.
At least four other news organizations planned to attend. It remained unclear how many media companies were invited or would attend. The meetings were planned for Thursday and Friday.
The talks follow 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 speech rights advocates and to new calls for a law protecting reporters’ work.
It 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 Justice Department official said on Tuesday.
James Cole, the deputy attorney general, authorized the search of Associated Press records as part of an investigation into a leak about U.S. operations in Yemen.
An Obama appointee, Holder has echoed the president in saying that leaks of classified information pose security risks and must stop.
Politico Editor in Chief John Harris said he routinely has off-the-record conversations to discuss news coverage and news gathering practices, and would attend the Holder meeting.
“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 the Politico website.
The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post also told Reuters they would attend.
Washington Post Executive Editor Martin Baron 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 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, in a statement on Wednesday, said an off-the-record meeting with the attorney general “isn’t appropriate.” She said that the newspaper’s lawyer would likely meet later with other 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 and CNN and online news group The Huffington Post also said they would not attend.
Other outlets, including NBC and CBS, could not be immediately reached or did not respond to requests for comment.
Prompted by the Rosen search and the seizure of Associated Press phone records, Obama said last Thursday that Holder would begin a review of Justice Department procedures related to media records.
Obama and Holder also said they favored a “shield law” for the media that would protect journalists from compelled disclosure of their records in most cases.
Additional reporting by Laura MacInnis in Washington; Editing by Howard Goller and David Storey