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Reporters Committee urges DHS to adopt guidelines on journalists

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The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press today urged Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff to adopt guidelines…

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press today urged Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff to adopt guidelines regulating subpoenas of the news media similar to those used for the last three decades by the Department of Justice.

“As you well know from your tenure at the Department of Justice, all agents of that department have been subject to these guidelines,” the Reporters Committee wrote. “And while, from our perspective, they do not fully protect the important First Amendment interests of journalists, they have nonetheless provided a very effective first line of defense for the news media.”

Chertoff previously served as Assistant Attorney General for the Criminal Division in the Department of Justice at the start of the Bush Administration, and was a federal prosecutor for more than 10 years before that.

“The Department of Homeland Security took over many functions previously conducted by the Justice Department,” noted Lucy A. Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee. “We sent this letter because it makes sense to extend the guidelines to the investigative functions of DHS.”

The Attorney General guidelines, adopted in 1972, state, among other things: approval of the Attorney General is required before issuing a subpoena to a member of the news media; officials should attempt to negotiate with the media before trying to formally demand information; alternative sources of information other than the news media should be used whenever possible; and members of the department must show that they have considered the effect their actions will have on “the free dissemination of ideas and information.” The guidelines were amended in 1980 to extend the same protections to subpoenas of telephone toll records.

While journalists do not interact with officials from Homeland Security as much as with those from Justice (which includes the FBI), at least one recent incident involving a DHS employee has caused concern among journalists. After journalist Bill Conroy, who writes for The Narcosphere web site, wrote about a DHS memo that was leaked to him concerning modification of terrorism-related immigration records, agents appeared at his home and later at his office to question him about his source. The web site has called the incident a “botched attempt to intimidate” a journalist.