After running roughshod over long-held standards of a free press, the Obama administration has paused to develop guidelines aimed at reining in government snooping of news organizations and reporters.
In recent months federal prosecutors have threatened to criminally charge a Fox News reporter and performed a sweeping search of phone records of reporters of The Associated Press, all in attempts to track down government officials who leaked information to the press.
The heavy-handed investigations overstepped government authority and violated the constitutional principle of the media operating without government obstruction.
Fortunately, the administration has realized its indefensible actions needed a serious response. Last week, Attorney General Eric Holder unveiled new guidelines aimed at better defining — and reining in — the Justice Department’s approach to leak investigations.
One of the most important guidelines ensures news organizations are, in most cases, notified when the government seeks records, something that will allow news organizations to discuss the situation with the Justice Department and to contest the actions in court if needed. The Associated Press only found out about the search of their reporters’ records after the fact.
The government can, in rare cases, bypass notification of news organizations if it would cause a serious national security risk or risk death or injury.
The guidelines also specify the government will not sweep up large amounts of data — as they did in The Associated Press case — but rather focus specifically on information related to the case at hand. The guidelines also say the government won’t go after a reporter for criminal charges simply for taking possession of classified information.
The guidelines are sensible. It’s understood that the government needs to protect some secrets and has the right and responsibility to go after government officials or workers who violate their position by leaking classified material. But it is also understood that the media have the right and obligation to be a watchdog of government.
While the guidelines are sound, it is now up to the Justice Department to ensure it follows the spirit of those guidelines.