CNN General Counsel David Vigilante has revealed he was under a gag order for nearly a year, preventing him from sharing details about the government’s attempts to confiscate reporters’ emails and phone records.
Vigilante revealed on Wednesday that he was “forbidden” from revealing that the Justice Department wanted to force the disclosure of CNN reporter Barbara Starr’s professional emails.
The Trump administration secretly obtained Starr’s phone and email records spanning two months, from June 1, 2017 to July 31, 2017, including phone numbers for her Pentagon extension, the CNN Pentagon booth, her home, and mobile phones. It also included her work and personal email accounts, CNN reports.
The Justice Department also went to court to try to confiscate the emails of four New York Times reporters; Matt Apuzzo, Adam Goldman, Eric Lichtblau and Michael S. Schmidt – all of whom contributed to an April 2017 survey in Comey and the election.
Vigilante appeared on CNN’s network show Wednesday, where he landed the “incredibly unusual” gag order.
CNN General Counsel David Vigilante revealed on Wednesday that he was under a gag order over the Trump administration’s seizure of the data of a CNN Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr
CNN General Counsel David Vigilante spoke on CNN on Wednesday about the terms of the gag order under which he stood
“I was told in no uncertain terms (on several occasions) that I was prohibited from communicating about any aspect of the warrant or this proceeding with the journalist whose interests I am obliged to protect, Barbara Starr,” Vigilante wrote in a statement. published report. the same day. “And I was further told that if I violated the warrant, I would be charged with contempt and even prosecuted for obstruction of justice.”
Vigilante said he knew such orders were used by the Justice Department in national security matters, but that in its 20 years CNN had never dealt with them, as they are often used as a last resort. His attempts to negotiate came to nothing, he said, and the Justice Department declined to give him more information about their investigation. “Basically, all the tools lawyers use every day to navigate these situations were denied us,” he wrote.
It is still not clear what the Trump administration was looking for. Starr reported on military options in North Korea, as well as ongoing conflict in Syria and Afghanistan during the time the record held.
After numerous attempts by CNN to get the Justice Department to limit its gag order, they reached a resolution on Jan. 26. Last month, Starr finally learned of the Justice Department’s seizure of her personal information.
The news comes days after the Biden administration vowed to no longer secretly obtain reporters’ data during leak investigations.
The Trump administration has secretly obtained Starr’s phone and email records, spanning two months in 2017. She only heard of their efforts last month
Biden said it was “just, just wrong” to confiscate journalists’ records and that he would not allow the Justice Department to continue the practice.
When it was revealed that the Times was under a similar injunction — under the Biden administration, which had banned the paper from revealing a secret lawsuit over attempts to obtain records from its four reporters — all of whom had been working on an April 2017 investigation into Comey and the elections.
Donald Trump’s administration has begun to get the ball rolling – although attempts to obtain the emails continued for three months of the Biden presidency, with the Biden team putting the gag order on paper, forcing it to refuse the request. could not make public.
The gag order had been in effect since March 3 before a federal court lifted it, allowing the paper to speak about the DOJ’s attempt to get email logs from Google, which operates the NYT’s system.
The request to Google was made on January 5 of this year, with just 15 days left until Trump’s presidency.
While Biden’s comments in an interview were not immediately accompanied by a change in policy, a pair of statements from the White House and the Justice Department on Saturday signaled an official reversal of investigative tactics that have persisted for years.
Both the Democratic and Republican governments have used subpoenas and court orders to obtain journalists’ records in an effort to identify sources who have revealed classified information.
But the practice received renewed attention in the past month when Justice Department officials warned reporters from three news organizations — The Washington Post, CNN and The New York Times — that their phone records had been obtained in the last year of the Trump administration.
Michael Schmidt (left) and Adam Goldman (right) were targeted by the Justice Department
Matt Apuzzo (left) and Eric Lichtblau were also identified by the Justice Department
Prosecutors in the US Attorney’s office in Washington had received a sealed court order from a magistrate, demanding that Google secretly hand over the New York Times data. Google refused and the emails were never obtained.
On March 3, now under the Biden administration, the Justice Department placed a gag order on the newspaper. The ban was lifted on Friday.
“Obviously Google did the right thing, but it should never have come to this,” said editor-in-chief Dean Baquet. “The Justice Department relentlessly searched for the identities of sources for coverage that was clearly in the public interest in the last 15 days of the Trump administration. And the Biden administration continued to pursue it.”
Baquet added: “As I said before, it profoundly undermines press freedom.”
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said on Saturday that no one in the White House was aware of the gag order until Friday night, but that in a broader sense “issuing subpoenas for reporters’ data in leak investigations is not in line with government policy.” the president. direction to the department.’
The New York Times revealed that four of their reporters were targeted by the Justice Department, which went to court to try to force Google to hand over their email records. Google pushed back and eventually the emails were never handed over, but the move has been described as an attack on the First Amendment
In a separate statement, Justice Department spokesman Anthony Coley said that “in a change from its long-standing practice,” the Department “will not seek mandatory legal action in leak investigations to obtain source information from members of the news media doing their jobs.” ‘.
He added: “The department attaches great importance to a free press, which protects the values of the First Amendment, and is committed to taking all appropriate measures to ensure the independence of journalists.”
In ruling out “mandatory legal action” for reporters in leak investigations, the department also appeared to say it would not force journalists to reveal the identities of their sources in court.
The statement did not say whether the Justice Department would continue to conduct aggressive leak investigations without obtaining the data from reporters.
It also did not define exactly who would be counted as a member of the media for the purposes of the policy and how broadly the protections would be.
Still, it marked a surprising turnaround regarding a practice that has persisted in multiple presidential administrations.
To further discuss the commitments, Vigilante will meet Monday with representatives from CNN, the New York Times and the Washington Post in a meeting with Attorney General Merrick Garland.
“This article is the first time in nearly a year that I can publicly address what happened to CNN without fear of prosecution,” Vigilante wrote in his article following the CNN report. “While we welcome recent commitments from both the President and the Attorney General’s Office, these commitments must be made permanent and binding on future office holders to have any meaning.”