DOJ pledges to no longer seize reporters’ records; White House says it was unaware of NYT gag order

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The Justice Department (DOJ) on Saturday said it will no longer secretly obtain reporters’ records during investigations into leaks of classified information, after the New York Times revealed that it had been the subject of a gag order amid a court fight over efforts to obtain its reporters’ email records.

DOJ said it had completed a review of the instances in which it had been seeking reporters’ records as part of leak investigations, and informed the reporters involved.

“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,” DOJ spokesperson Anthony Coley said. “The Department strongly values a free press, protecting First Amendment values, and is committed to taking all appropriate steps to ensure the independence of journalists.”

The practice of using court orders to obtain records has been used by multiple administrations, both Republican and Democrat, as they sought to root out the sources of leaked classified information to the media. News organizations had criticized the practice, warning that it chills press freedom and is an infringement on the First Amendment.

President Biden had appeared to support ending the practice, and last month declared it “simply, simply wrong” after it emerged that the Trump administration secretly obtained 2017 records of a CNN correspondent.

However, on Friday, The New York Times reported that DOJ, under both the Trump and Biden administrations, had sought the records of four NYT reporters from 2017. The Biden administration informed a handful of Times executives about the battle, but imposed a since-lifted gag order that prevented the executives from disclosing the efforts even to the executive editor, Dean Baquet.

According to the Times, the effort — which began in 2020 — was to seize email logs from Google, which operates the outlet’s email system, and had also denied access to the information to the government. 

Shortly after the Justice Department released its statement, Press Secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement that “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,” she said.

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Psaki had previously said that DOJ would use the “Holder model” when investigating leaks to journalists — referring to Obama-era Attorney General Eric Holder.

Holder’s DOJ had changed guidelines for obtaining records during criminal leak probes, and added additional hurdles, but had not ended the practice.

Fox News’ David Spunt and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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