The Justice Department released its report providing new guidelines for criminal investigations involving reporters late Friday afternoon -- an effort to respond to a furor over revelations in May that the U.S. government was snooping on reporters' phone lines and private emails on an unprecedented level.
Among the revisions, the Justice Department will be restricted from labeling a journalist as a criminal co-conspirator in seeking a search warrant to gain access to reporting materials. After news of government surveillance on reporters broke, President Obama said he didn't think the government should be prosecuting journalists who print classified material.
"The Department of Justice is firmly committed to ensuring our nation's security, and protecting the American people, while at the same time safeguarding the freedom of the press," Attorney General Eric Holder said in a written statement accompanying the guidelines. "These revised guidelines will help ensure the proper balance is struck when pursuing investigations into unauthorized disclosures."
During a 30-day review that preceded the release of the new guidelines, Holder said he held seven meetings with about 30 news organizations, as well as First Amendment groups, media industry associations and academic experts.
The new rules will require more internal Justice Department approvals for requests of reporters' phone and email records, including from the Justice Department's director of public affairs as well as a privacy/civil liberties officer, but neither official will have the power to veto the proposed media probes.
When Justice receives a referral to investigate a leak of classified information, the director of National Intelligence will have to certify that the leak caused "significant harm" before opening a case. The media, however, will not be notified of subpoenas in all cases. Instead, DOJ will still hold significant discretion in determining when and whether to alert media outlets that they are under investigation, a decision reporters were already deeming a deep disappointment upon the report's release.
Justice will begin reporting annually how many times search warrants and subpoenas against journalists were issued and will set up a permanent News Media Group, made up of members of the press, to continue a dialogue.
The report also touted the administration's support for a media shield law that would create a legal "reporter's privilege" in the federal courts.
"While these reforms will make a meaningful difference, there are additional protections that only Congress can provide. For that reason, we continue to support the passage of media shield legislation," Holder said. "I look forward to working with leaders from both parties to achieve this goal, and am grateful to all of the journalists, free speech advocates, experts, and administration leaders who have come together in recent weeks -- in good faith, and with mutual respect -- to guide and inform the changes we announce today."
But even before the report's release, reporters were questioning its Friday afternoon timing as particularly politically tone-deaf considering that reporters often complain about the well-worn practice of the government doing late-Friday document dumps of negative material to limit coverage over the weekend.
The release also came hours after White House spokesman Jay Carney's Friday daily briefing with reporters, allowing the White House to defer all questions about the new guidelines to the Justice Department.
During the briefing, Carney said only that President Obama "accepted the report" from Holder and referred all other questions to the Justice Department. He said the White House would comment only after the report is released. As of 5:30 p.m. Friday, the White House had yet to weigh in.
Carney was forced to contend with a fusillade of questions from angry reporters for weeks after news broke that Justice had seized records of Associated Press phone calls and searched an email account of Fox News reporter James Rosen - all in attempts to track down and quash national security leaks.
Amid the firestorm over the DOJ's snooping in May, Obama set Friday as the deadline for releasing the department's revamped guidelines on probes involving the media.