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WASHINGTON - America's embattled attorney general assured news organizations on Thursday that there will soon be revised guidelines from the U.S. Justice Department about issuing subpoenas in criminal investigations involving journalists.
In an attempt to tamp down a growing scandal, Eric Holder made the comments at an off-the-record meeting boycotted by some of the biggest new outlets in the country, news executives in attendance told The Associated Press. Another session was scheduled for Friday.
The AP was among the media organizations that refused to attend the meetings because news outlets were banned from reporting on them.
At Thursday's session, Holder and Justice Department officials were told by Marty Baron, executive editor of The Washington Post, that reporters were now fearful about using their email and office telephones to do their jobs.
John Harris, editor-in-chief of Politico, told the website that Holder and deputy attorney general James Cole Stephen Cole said they were "reaching out to editors and counsels for news organizations about how to strike what they called 'the balance' between protecting the flow of information and journalists’ ability to do our jobs and what they described as national security damage."
Earlier this month, the Justice Department seized phone records from a handful of reporters at the AP and Fox News and, in court documents, accused Fox reporter James Rosen of being part of a criminal conspiracy for his reporting on North Korea in 2009.
In the wake of the revelations — considered a chilling intrusion on press freedom by many news executives — U.S. President Barack Obama pledged that Holder would "consult a diverse and representative group of media organizations" to discuss the Justice Department's guidelines for reporters involved in leak investigations.
The meetings were planned amid an atmosphere of intense distrust between some of America's most influential news organizations and the White House under Obama, who came to power vowing to create a more transparent and open government.
Journalists, lawmakers and civil liberties experts have decried the strong-arm tactics of the Obama administration, the most zealous in contemporary U.S. political history in pursuing those it suspects of leaking information to the media.
The president has asked Holder to report to him on any recommended policy changes on such investigations by July 12.
The meetings were ostensibly meant to explain Justice Department guidelines for journalists involved in leak investigations. The New York Times, CNN, NBC, CBS and Fox News also balked at participating.
Jill Abramson, the executive editor of the New York Times, said it would be inappropriate for the paper's D.C. bureau chief to participate in an off-the-record meeting given her paper is "aggressively covering the department’s handling of leak investigations at this time."
The White House, for its part, was unapologetic about the meeting being off-the-record.
"We are hopeful that media organizations will take advantage of the opportunity to constructively contribute to this process," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said earlier Thursday.
He denied suggestions that holding an off-the-record meeting was hypocritical for a department pledging to provide more information to the media in the wake of the revelations.
"I don't actually see that. The attorney general is interested in having a constructive policy discussion with professional journalists about a subject most people think is a complex policy issue," he said.
Earnest added that Obama continues to have confidence in Holder.
Holder is on the hot seat for his testimony at a congressional hearing earlier this month.
The attorney general told lawmakers he was unaware of any "potential prosecution" reporters; it later emerged he knew about an investigation targeting Rosen, and personally signed off on search warrant documents aimed at allowing authorities to pore over the journalist's private emails.
Rosen has not been charged but court documents filed by the Justice Department accused him of violating the federal Espionage Act.
The judiciary committee of the House of Representatives said this week it's looking into Holder's May 15 testimony. Republican members of the committee allege his claims have been contradicted by the Fox News developments that emerged a few days after the attorney general's appearance at the hearing.
Committee chairman Bob Goodlatte and James Sensenbrenner, chairman of the House's investigations subcommittee, sent a letter to Holder earlier this week questioning his testimony.
"The media reports and statements issued by the department regarding the search warrants for Mr. Rosen's emails appear to be at odds with your sworn testimony before the Committee," the letter reads.
"We believe — and we hope you will agree — it is imperative that the committee, the Congress, and the American people be provided a full and accurate account of your involvement in and approval of these search warrants."
Sensenbrenner has called for Holder's resignation, or for Obama to step in and fire him.