White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said on Saturday that the Justice Department would no longer subpoena the phone and email records of reporters during leak investigations, after recent revelations that prosecutors secretly sought such information from journalists at The Washington Post, The New York Times and CNN.
In a statement, Psaki said, “As appropriate given the independence of the Justice Department in specific criminal cases, no one at the White House was aware of the gag order until Friday night. While the White House does not intervene in criminal investigations, the issuing of subpoenas for the records of reporters in leak investigations is not consistent with the President’s policy direction to the Department, and the Department of Justice has reconfirmed it will not be used moving forward.”
On Friday, the Times reported on a legal battle that played out in the final weeks of the Trump administration and the early part of the Biden administration to obtain the email records of four reporters. But a gag order prevented top Times executives from even disclosing what was happening to the Times newsroom, including its top editor, Dean Baquet. Earlier in the week, the Times reported that the reporters, Matt Apuzzo, Adam Goldman, Eric Lichtblau and Michael S. Schmidt, had been informed of the court order to obtain their email logs via Google, which operates the Times’ email system.
Reporters at the Post and CNN also had been informed of similar government efforts to obtain phone and email information. It’s believed to have stemmed from Trump administration efforts to root out the source of leaks from 2017. More specifically, the leak investigation was said to target James Comey, the former FBI director who was fired by Trump.
Still, news outlets and press advocates expressed alarm not just at the surreptitious infringement on First Amendment rights, but that the Biden administration would not take a stand against it. Last month, CNN’s Kaitlan Collins asked Biden about the practice, after the network reported that federal prosecutors had sought phone and email information from its correspondent, Barbara Starr. Biden told Collins that it was “simply wrong” and he would “not let that happen.”
According to the AP, Anthony Coley, a spokesman for the Justice Department, confirmed the new DOJ policy.
“Going forward, consistent with the President’s direction, this Department of Justice — in a change to its longstanding practice — will not seek compulsory legal process in leak investigations to obtain source information from members of the news media doing their jobs,” he said.
Bruce Brown, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said in a statement that while the announcement was welcomed, “serious unanswered questions remain about what happened in each of these cases. To ensure it does not happen again, we look forward to pursuing additional policy reforms with the Biden administration to further safeguard these essential rights.”
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