Justice Department says it will no longer seize journalists’ files
Security stands guard at the headquarters of the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) in Washington, DC, the United States, May 10, 2021.
Andrew Kelly | Reuters
The Justice Department said on Saturday it would no longer secretly obtain journalists’ files during leak investigations, a policy change that abandons a practice decried by media outlets and press freedom groups.
The reversal follows a pledge last month by President Joe Biden, who had declared that it was “quite simply, quite simply false” to seize the files of the journalists and that it would not allow the Ministry of Justice to continue this practice. While Biden’s comments in an interview were not immediately accompanied by a change in policy, two statements from the White House and the Justice Department on Saturday signaled an official turnaround in an investigative tactic that persists. For years.
The Democratic and Republican administrations have used subpoenas and court orders to obtain journalists’ files in an attempt to identify sources who have revealed classified information. But the practice had been re-examined in the past month, with Justice Department officials alerting reporters from three news outlets – the Washington Post, CNN and the New York Times – that their records telephone numbers had been obtained during the last year of the Trump administration.
The latest revelation came on Friday night when The Times reported the existence of a gag order that had banned the newspaper from revealing a secret court battle over efforts to obtain the email tapes of four journalists. This struggle had started under the Trump administration but had persisted under Biden’s Justice Department, which ultimately decided to withdraw the gag order.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said on Saturday that no one in the White House was aware of the gag order until Friday evening, but that more broadly, “the broadcast of subpoenas for journalists’ files in leakage investigations does not comply with the president’s policy. direction to the ministry. “
In a separate statement, Department of Justice spokesman Anthony Coley said “as part of a change from its long-standing practice,” the department “will not seek mandatory legal proceedings in leak investigations to get information on the source of members of the media doing their work. “
He added, “The department attaches great importance to a free press, protecting First Amendment values, and is committed to taking all appropriate measures to ensure the independence of journalists.
By excluding “compulsory legal process” for journalists in leak investigations, the department also appeared to say it would not require journalists to reveal the identity of their sources in court.
The statement did not say whether the Justice Department would still conduct aggressive investigations into the leaks without obtaining the files of journalists. It also did not define who exactly would be counted as a member of the media for political purposes and to what extent the protection would apply.
Nonetheless, it marked a surprising reversal in a practice that has persisted in several presidential administrations. The Obama Justice Department, under then-Attorney General Eric Holder, alerted the Associated Press in 2013 that he had secretly obtained two months of telephone tapes from reporters and editors in this report. which the top leader of the information cooperative called a “massive and unprecedented intrusion” into information-gathering activities.
After the flashback, Holder announced a revised set of guidelines for leak investigations, including requiring the highest levels of the department to be cleared before subpoenas for news media tapes. can be issued.
But the department has retained its prerogative to seize reporters’ files, and recent media releases show the practice continued within the Trump-era Justice Department in several investigations.
Separately on Saturday, the Justice Department said it was withdrawing its subpoena which asked USA Today to provide information to identify readers of a story about a suspect in a child pornography case that shot and killed two FBI agents. in February.
The summons was issued in April but came to light last week when USA Today and its parent company Gannet filed documents in federal court asking a judge to overturn it. The summons asked for the IP addresses and cell phone credentials of readers who clicked on the article for a period of approximately 35 minutes the day after the shooting.
The government had not provided details of the case or why it was particularly interested in readers who clicked on the USA Today story during that brief period. Officials had only said the summons was linked to an ongoing federal criminal investigation.
But a federal prosecutor told USA Today attorneys on Saturday that the FBI was withdrawing his subpoena because authorities were able to identify the subject of their investigation – described in an email as an “author of” sexual exploitation of children – by “other means”. the prosecutor’s email was included in a court file from Gannett.