A police officer stands in front of the New York Times building in New York on June 28, 2018. Trump’s Justice Department secretly obtained phone records from four New York Times journalists as part of a leak investigation, the newspaper said. Mary Altaffer / AP Hide caption
Mary Altaffer / AP
Mary Altaffer / AP
WASHINGTON (AP) – The Justice Department said Saturday it will no longer secretly seek reporter records on leak investigations, a policy change that is abandoning a practice denounced by news organizations and press freedom groups.
The repeal follows a promise made last month by President Joe Biden who said it was “easy, just wrong” to confiscate journalists’ records and that he would not allow the Justice Department to continue the practice. Although Biden’s comments in an interview were not immediately accompanied by a change in policy, two statements by the White House and Justice Department on Saturday signaled an official turn from a longstanding investigative tactic.
Both Democratic and Republican governments have used subpoenas and court orders to obtain journalists’ records to identify sources who have disclosed classified information. But the practice had been re-scrutinized last month when Justice Department officials alerted reporters from three news organizations – The Washington Post, CNN and The New York Times – that their phone records had been given to the Trump administration last year had been.
The New York Times says a gag order prevented the newspaper from exposing a secret court battle
The latest revelation came Friday night as the Times reported the existence of a gag order That had prevented the newspaper from uncovering a secret legal dispute over the email records of four reporters. This dispute had started during the Trump administration but had continued under the Biden Justice Department, which eventually moved to withdraw the gag order.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Saturday that no one in the White House was aware of the gag order as of Friday night, but that in a broader sense, “the issuing of subpoenas to record reporters on leak investigations is inconsistent with politics of the President is compatible ”. Direction to the department. “
In a separate statement, Justice Department spokesman Anthony Coley said that “in a change in its longstanding practice,” the department “will not seek mandatory legal process in leak investigations to obtain source information from members of the news media who do their jobs” .
He added: “The Ministry attaches great importance to a free press, protects the values of the First Amendment and is committed to taking all appropriate steps to ensure journalists’ independence.”
By ruling out “compulsory trials” for reporters in leak investigations, the department also appeared to be saying it would not force journalists to reveal the identities of their sources in court.
DOJ statement leaves unanswered questions
The statement did not say whether the Justice Department would still conduct aggressive leak investigations without receiving recordings from reporters. Nor was it defined exactly who is counted as media representatives for the purposes of the directive and how far the protection should apply.
Even so, it marked a surprising reversal of a practice that has endured in several presidential administrations. The Obama Justice Department, under then Attorney General Eric Holder, notified The Associated Press in 2013 that it had secretly received two months of telephone tapes from reporters and editors in what the news cooperative’s top manager called a “massive and unprecedented interference” with news gathering Activities.
Following the blowback, Holder announced a revised set of guidelines for leak investigation, including requiring approval from the highest levels of the department before subpoenas can be issued for media records.
But the Department retained its prerogative to seize journalists’ records, and recent disclosures to the news media show that the practice continued in the Trump-era Justice Department under several investigations.