The Department of Justice pledged Saturday to stop seizing reporters’ phone and email records when investigating leaks by federal employees, after multiple news outlets discovered last month the Trump administration worked to secretly obtain their reporters’ information.
The DOJ will no longer use “compulsory legal” means to identify reporters’ sources during future leak investigations, agency spokesperson Anthony Coley said in a Saturday statement to Forbes and other news outlets.
It’s a stark departure from the DOJ’s previous internal policy, which allowed federal investigators to seek subpoenas for reporters in certain “extraordinary” cases, but required the attorney general to sign off first.
President Joe Biden suggested last month he would not allow the DOJ to seek out reporters’ records, calling the practice “simply wrong.”
Coley also said the DOJ has reviewed previous leak investigations and notified all reporters whose records were sought.
In recent weeks, the DOJ has revealed to the New York Times, CNN and Washington Post that department lawyers secretly seized some of their reporters’ records during the Trump administration. In all three cases, the DOJ reportedly tried to obtain data on the senders, recipients and dates — but not the actual audio or text — of reporters’ phone calls or emails for specific periods in 2017. It’s unclear why the government sought out these records, but some outlets have tied the effort to former President Donald Trump’s zealous attempts to track down federal employees who leaked information to reporters without permission. News organizations have long chafed at this practice, arguing it makes it more difficult for journalists to do their jobs.
The Times reported Friday one Trump-era push to obtain several reporters’ records briefly carried over into the Biden administration, an effort that was previously unknown to all but a few Times executives because of a gag order. Coley told Forbes the DOJ repeatedly postponed and ultimately withdrew an order for these records, and the White House said it was unaware of the gag order before Friday.
Trump wasn’t the first president to ensnare reporters in leak investigations. Former President Barack Obama’s administration also investigated the work of several reporters at the Associated Press and Fox News.