Justice Department officials say they will no longer access journalists’ phone and email records amid an outcry over the Trump and Biden administration’s attempts to break the email records of four New York Times journalists to confiscate.
The White House has claimed that no one was aware of a gag order that prevented the Times from reporting its staffers’ attempts to report Friday night communications with both the Biden administration and the Justice Department since they returned.
Donald Trump officials made the first request for the data on January 5 this year to try to pinpoint the source of White House leaks about former FBI Director James Comey, and that legal process continued after Joe Biden took office. .
Biden’s Justice Department lawyers were even banned from public speaking that the New York Times could not warn the general public of what was going on.
Press secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement that issuing subpoenas for reporters’ data in leak investigations is inconsistent with the president’s policy direction to the ministry.
The denial comes as 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 Justice Department has said it will no longer request access to journalists’ data. The photo shows the US Department of Justice building in Washington
The Times revealed that four 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 the emails were never handed over. The move was described as an attack on the First Amendment
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
The undo follows a pledge last month by President Joe Biden who said it was “just, just wrong” to confiscate journalists’ records and that he would not allow the Justice Department to continue the practice. .
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 came under renewed scrutiny 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. .
Joe Biden previously vowed to stop the DOJ’s seizure of journalist records
The latest revelation came Friday night when the Times reported the existence of a gag order that prevented the paper from revealing a secret lawsuit over attempts to obtain the email details of four reporters.
The request for that data was made on Jan. 5 — 15 days before Trump left office — but went further under Biden’s Justice Department, which asked for a gag order to ban publication of the seizures, only to later withdraw. come.
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.
There have also been several recent revelations about attempts to secretly seize data under the Trump administration
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement that “issuing subpoenas for reporters’ data in leak investigations is inconsistent with the president’s policy direction to the Department.”
Bruce D. Brown, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said he welcomed the Justice Department’s policy change, but serious unanswered questions still remain about what happened in each of these cases.
“To ensure this does not happen again, we look forward to working with the Biden administration to implement additional policy reforms to further safeguard these essential rights,” he said in a statement.
The two newspapers from which reporters’ phone records had been secretly obtained also said more needs to be done.
“This is a welcome step in protecting the ability of the press to provide the public with vital information about what their government is doing,” New York Times publisher AG Sulzberger said in a statement. “However, significantly more needs to be done and we are still waiting for an explanation as to why the Justice Department acted so aggressively to confiscate journalists’ data.”
Sally Buzbee, editor-in-chief of the Washington Post, said the paper called on the Biden administration and the Justice Department “to provide full accounts of events in both administrations and to implement continued protections to prevent recurrence in the future.” appearance’.
The statement from the Justice Department did not say whether it 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.
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 in the Trump Justice Department as part of multiple investigations.
The FBI sent an email to USA Today attorneys on June 5 saying they were withdrawing their subpoenas because they identified the suspect “by other means.”
Separately on Saturday, the Justice Department said it was withdrawing its subpoena asking USA Today to provide information to help readers identify a story about a child pornography suspect who shot and killed two FBI agents in February.
The subpoena was issued in April but came to light last week when USA Today and its parent company Gannett filed documents in federal court asking a judge to quash the subpoena.
The subpoena sought the IP addresses and cell phone identifiers of readers who clicked on the article for about 35 minutes the day after the shooting.
The government had not given any details about the case or why it was specifically interested in the readers who clicked on the USA Today story during that short period of time. Officials had only said the subpoena was related to an ongoing federal criminal investigation.
But a federal prosecutor told USA Today attorneys on Saturday that the FBI was withdrawing its subpoena because authorities described the subject of their investigation — described in an email as “delinquent of child sexual exploitation” — by “other means.” can identify.
The subpoena asked for the IP addresses and phone numbers of the people who read the article to aid in a ‘federal investigation’
The FBI had asked for the details of anyone who had read a story in what USA Today and its publisher Gannett had called a violation of their and their readers’ First Amendment rights.