After two days of wrangling, several major mainstream media organizations agreed to meet Friday, May 31 with Attorney General Eric Holder to discuss the circumstances under which the Justice Department would imprison journalists for reporting on human rights abuses if that reporting is deemed to be damaging to national security. Neither the Columbus Free Press nor Wikileaks was invited to attend or offer comment.
Several news organizations, including the Associated Press and Fox News, both of whom have been placed under electronic surveillance, declined to attend the meeting because it would be secret and off the record. It is not known if the First Amendment was on the agenda, which was secret.
At the last moment, Holder loosened the rule for journalists attending the meeting, permitting them to interview each other after the meeting without threat of imprisonment. Three out of the five journalists who did attend spoke briefly with reporters. They have not yet been arrested.
The Obama administration has pledged to review the current rules for prosecuting journalists over the next 45 days. Many of the antiquated rules date to a time before the information revolution allowed journalists to have more robust means of protecting whistle-blowers from exposure, retaliation and imprisonment. The current rules were drafted by Nixon's attorney general John Mitchell in 1972 before he was convicted during the Watergate affair. His practice of warrantless wiretaps of dissidents was struck down in court but then reinstated with the Patriot Act in 2001.
The meeting was widely seen as at first step in this review process, where those media organizations that do participate in this secret dialogue will have their input considered when crafting future guidelines. Martin Baron, executive editor of The Washington Post, was permitted to say that the meeting was a constructive opportunity to share views at the highest levels of the Justice Department.
Baron was also allowed to speak to the Huffington Post about the chilling effect of the Justice Department's recent crackdown on the press. “We expressed our concerns that reporters felt some fear for doing their jobs -- that they were concerned about using their email and concerned about using their office telephones, and that we need to have the freedom to do our jobs," he said. No employees of the Huffington Post have yet been charged with any crimes, although the organization declined to obey the Attorney General's summons to the secret meeting.
It is not known if the new secret guidelines will result in Eric Holder having to personally allow the seizure of journalists emails and telephone conversations, as he has done at least once in the past, or if the prosecution of journalists can be made into a more routine matter for lower ranking officials with working under firm but secret guidelines.
Holder is reported to have graciously permitted selected media outlets to voice their concerns. According to employees of ABC news “The Attorney General said that members of the news media had legitimate concerns about guidelines for investigations where reporters are concerned.” No journalists working for ABC have yet been indicted under the espionage act.
It is not known how much influence those media organizations that wisely chose to obey Attorney General Holder will have. It is also unknown what the new guidelines will be or what security clearance will be required of a journalist to legally read them.
The Department of Justice has not yet authorized the Free Press to continue to cover this story, but we will do so anyway.