The Trump administration’s Justice Department secretly seized months of phone records from four New York Times reporters as part of a leak investigation, the newspaper reported Wednesday.
The Biden administration disclosed to the newspaper that the Trump administration’s Justice Department had seized nearly four months of phone records in 2017 from reporters Matt Apuzzo, Adam Goldman, Eric Lichtblau and Michael Schmidt. Officials had a court order to seize the group’s email logs sans contents as well, but no records were obtained, according to the Times.
The newspaper said the timing of the seized records and the reporters involved in the investigation suggest that the leak probe involved an April 22, 2017, Times report about former FBI Director James Comey’s handling of different investigations during the 2016 election.
“Seizing the phone records of journalists profoundly undermines press freedom,” Dean Baquet, the executive editor of The Times, told the newspaper in a statement. “It threatens to silence the sources we depend on to provide the public with essential information about what the government is doing.”
News of the seized phone records marks just the latest disclosure about the Trump administration’s heavy-handed tactics toward leak investigations involving journalists.
The Justice Department informed CNN Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr, in a May 13 letter, that prosecutors had obtained her phone and email records covering two months, from June 1, 2017, to July 31, 2017. The letter listed phone numbers for Starr’s Pentagon extension, the CNN Pentagon booth and Starr’s home and cell phones, as well as her work and personal email accounts.
And three Washington Post reporters who covered the FBI’s Russia investigation were told last month that last year the Justice Department had obtained their phone records from 2017. In 2018, the Justice Department disclosed it had also obtained 2017 phone and email communications from a reporter for BuzzFeed, Politico and The New York Times who had written stories about Russia.
Justice Department spokesperson Anthony Coley told CNN in a statement that “today, the Department of Justice notified four journalists that it obtained their phone toll records and sought to obtain non-content email records from 2017 as part of a criminal investigation into the unauthorized disclosure of classified information. The records at issue were sought in 2020 under Department regulations that apply to records of members of the news media, and the journalists were neither subjects nor targets of the investigation. “
He added that “members of the news media have now been notified in every instance” of leak investigations that took place in 2019 and 2020 involving reporters’ records.
President Joe Biden told CNN last month that he would not let his Department of Justice seize phone records or emails from reporters. Following a joint news conference with South Korean President Moon Jae-in in the White House East Room, Biden told CNN: “We should absolutely, positively – it’s wrong, it’s simply, simply wrong,” adding, “I will not let that happen.”
Under Justice Department regulations, the department can secretly obtain journalists’ records through a court order, without the journalists knowing. The department laid out revised, slightly more stringent guidelines for issuing media subpoenas during the Obama administration in 2015, mandating that the attorney general had to authorize subpoenas when they related to the newsgathering activities of journalists.
But the policy still provides the attorney general and other top department officials with wide latitude to seek communications from journalists – and to keep the matter secret initially.
“The level of secrecy is something we’ve been very focused on for years. From our perspective it impacts reporter source privilege and the protections for the reporter,” Katie Townsend, legal director at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, previously told CNN. “These things are routinely filed under seal and kept under seal and maintained under seal indefinitely.”
In some cases, members of the media are notified before subpoenas are issued, giving the news organizations the ability to fight the subpoenas in court.
But Justice Department policy also allows prosecutors to obtain journalists’ communications without their knowledge through the courts – if the attorney general signs off and the department determines the case falls under “extraordinary measures,” such as harm to national security, and after all other reasonable attempts have been made to obtain the information elsewhere.
CNN’s Jeremy Herb and Jessica Schneider contributed to this report.