The Justice Department said on Saturday it will no longer secretly obtain reporters’ data during leak investigations, a policy shift that leaves a practice frowned upon by news organizations and press freedom groups.
The revocation follows a pledge last month by President Joe Biden, who had said it was “just, just wrong” to confiscate journalists’ records and that he would not allow the Justice Department to continue the practice. put.
The latest revelation came Friday night when the… turn reported the existence of a gag order that prevented the newspaper from disclosing a secret lawsuit over attempts to obtain the email details of four reporters.
Donald Trump’s administration began to get the ball rolling – although attempts to obtain the emails continued for three months of the Biden presidency, with the Biden team even putting a gag order on paper, making it the request could not be made 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 until Trump’s presidency.
Joe Biden previously vowed to stop the DOJ’s seizure of journalist records
Biden’s comments came after CNN reported that the Justice Department had secretly obtained 2017 phone records from one of their correspondents on behalf of the Trump administration.
That data was obtained to try to track down a journalist’s confidential sources in an apparent attempt to plug a White House leak, it is alleged.
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 Justice Department on Saturday signaled an official reversal of investigative tactics that have persisted for years.
Both 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.
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.
“It’s clear that 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.”
The lawsuit came amid heavy coverage of former FBI Director James Comey and his actions in the run-up to the 2016 election.
The department sought to obtain data from the four reporters—Matt Apuzzo, Adam Goldman, Eric Lichtblau, and Michael S. Schmidt—all of whom an April 2017 survey in Comey and the election.
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 DOJ announced it will “not seek mandatory legal action in leak investigations to obtain source information from members of the news media doing their jobs.”
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.
The Obama Department of Justice, under then Attorney General Eric Holder, warned The Associated Press in 2013 that it had secretly obtained two months’ worth of phone records from reporters and editors in what the news co-op chief called a “massive and unprecedented breach.” ‘ on news-gathering activities.
There have been several recent revelations about attempts to secretly seize data under the Trump administration
Following the backlash, Holder announced a revised set of guidelines for leak investigations, including requiring authorization from the highest levels of the department before subpoenas for news media records could be issued.
But the department retained its privilege to confiscate journalists’ data, and the recent revelations to the news media organizations show the practice continued into the Trump era of Justice as part of multiple investigations.
The Washington Post revealed that last year the Justice Department seized phone records of three of its journalists covering the investigation into Russian interference.
Ellen Nakashima, Greg Miller and former Post-reporter Adam Entous were subjected to obtaining phone records for a period of three and a half months in 2017.
“We are deeply concerned about this use of government power to access journalists’ communications,” said Cameron Barr, the paper’s deputy editor-in-chief.
“The Justice Department must immediately clarify why it is infringing on the activities of journalists doing their jobs, an activity protected by the First Amendment.”
Last month, Psaki suggested that the Justice Department use the “Holder Model,” a reference to Obama-era Attorney General Eric Holder, when asked how the government viewed the practice of obtaining data from journalists. .
Under Holder, the Justice Department announced revised guidelines for obtaining data from the news media during criminal leak investigations, removing language that news organizations say was ambiguous and required additional levels of assessment before a journalist could be subpoenaed, but it didn’t end the practice. .
The latest revelation came Friday night when the New York Times reported the existence of a gag order that had banned the newspaper from revealing a secret lawsuit over attempts to obtain the email details of four reporters.
In May, CNN learned the Pentagon that prosecutors had obtained the telephone and email records of correspondent Barbara Starr.
The records spanned all of June and July 2017, including Starr’s personal email account.
Starr reported on military options in North Korea, as well as ongoing conflict in Syria and Afghanistan during the time the record held.
A Justice Department official claimed Starr was not the target of an investigation.
“CNN strongly condemns the secret collection of every aspect of journalists’ correspondence, which is clearly protected by the First Amendment,” said CNN President Jeff Zucker.
A reporter who worked for BuzzFeed, Politico and The New York Times was also subject to getting their phone records for their reporting on the Russia investigation.
Phone records usually reveal the length and recipient of calls, but not the actual material of the call.
They could potentially be used to identify leakers speaking to reporters about alleged malpractice within the White House administration or in a government department.