The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Barbara Starr question: Why did Trump’s Justice Department want CNN Pentagon reporter’s emails?

Barbara Starr of CNN. “I don’t know what the government was looking for when it snuck into my life,” the Pentagon reporter wrote. (Jeremy Freeman/CNN)

Regular CNN viewers know Barbara Starr as the network’s veteran Pentagon reporter, a straight-shooting correspondent who delivers periodic news reports on topics like NATO, counterterrorism efforts, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

So it was striking when Starr was revealed last month as one of the journalists whose email and phone records were secretly seized by the Justice Department amid a Trump administration push to discover who was providing classified information to journalists.

Striking because Starr isn’t like the others: She wasn’t involved in reporting or investigating the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia in the 2016 election, as were seven journalists from The Washington Post and New York Times and two Democratic congressmen, Adam B. Schiff and Eric Swalwell, both of whom were also the targets of secret Justice Department record seizures.

That disconnect has left a mystery. Why did the Justice Department go after Starr, given that she wasn’t involved in the Russia story and that her stories don’t appear to have been based on leaks of classified material, the crime prosecutors were ostensibly investigating?

The short answer from Starr and her colleagues is a puzzled shrug — and a good deal of outrage.

“Speaking for myself, I don’t know what the government was looking for when it snuck into my life,” she wrote in a column published on CNN’s website on Monday.

CNN waged secret battle against Justice Dept. over reporter records before ultimately turning some over

All three news organizations have raised objections to the government’s pursuit of their journalists’ communications — a tactic that Jeff Schogol, president of the Military Reporters and Editors Association, called “an attack on the First Amendment [that] is clearly meant to prevent sources from talking to journalists, creating a chilling effect on newsgathering.”

Starr said she didn’t learn about the secret collection of her records until late last month. The government’s sweep involved a two-month period, between June 1 and July 31, 2017, and included her work phone at the Pentagon, her home and cellphones, and her work and personal email accounts, according to CNN.

An FBI agent who provided an affidavit in the government’s case early this year claimed that “Starr published multiple articles containing classified information” over the period for which they were seeking her records, but that the investigation was “focused most on one particular article.”

Neither he nor the Justice Department’s attorneys specified which story that was. Starr reported on a wide range of topics, including about U.S. missile tests, military accidents, and U.S. troop deployments in Afghanistan and Syria. But none specify that they are based on classified material. One of Starr’s stories cites “a memo obtained by CNN.” Other stories cite unnamed “defense officials.”

Government officials told CNN’s top attorney, David Vigilante, about the seizure last July, but a federal judge placed him under a gag order, preventing him from saying anything to Starr. The order was lifted last month, freeing Vigilante to tell Starr what he’s known for the past 10 months. Starr found out after Vigilante directed her to a letter from the Justice Department at CNN’s Washington bureau.

Her reaction: “I am genuinely horrified by what happened. . . . As a CNN journalist, myself and my newsroom clearly were being used as a tool by the Trump Justice Department,” she wrote.

Although Justice Department officials haven’t shed any further light on the matter, Starr’s colleagues surmise that she may have been a target as a proxy for CNN itself.

They say it’s no coincidence that journalists from The Post, the Times and CNN were the subject of the Justice Department’s actions. The three news organizations were among the most aggressive in probing Russian interference in the 2016 election and the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia. (The Post and the Times won Pulitzer Prizes for their work on the topic in 2018.) Trump frequently turned to Twitter to unleash tirades against all three during his presidency, as well as against Schiff and Swalwell, members of the House Intelligence Committee who appeared often on CNN to criticize him.

Starr, however, was never publicly rebuked by Trump or other government officials. Instead, Trump saved his public ire for CNN’s White House reporters Jim Acosta and Kaitlan Collins, and occasionally for their boss, CNN President Jeff Zucker. Both reporters were temporarily barred by the White House. Acosta, who often tangled with Trump and his press secretaries, was at one point thrown off the White House grounds by presidential decree (CNN successfully sued to restore his press pass).

So why go after Starr?

“I find it so odd,” said one of Starr’s CNN colleagues, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because network rules prohibit staffers from making unauthorized comments. “It stumps me, except . . . for Trump’s sense there was a ‘deep state’ even at the Pentagon that wanted to sabotage him.”

Starr didn’t return several requests for comment. CNN had no official comment.

In the meantime, Starr has gotten support from several media and free-speech organizations, including the Military Reporters and Editors Association as well as the Pentagon Press Association. (A board member of the latter group, Starr has recused herself from any involvement in the group’s statements in support of her.)

Senior representatives of CNN, the Times and The Post met with Biden’s attorney general, Merrick Garland, on Monday to discuss their concerns about the leak investigation. Garland made no firm commitments but ordered a review of the department’s handling of the matter.

Starr, for one, holds strong views about what Garland should do next. She wants firm protections against future government searches of journalists’ phone and email contacts written into the department’s rules and guidelines.

“America’s armed forces are willing to die to protect all of our rights, including freedom of the press,” she wrote. “The Justice Department must find a way to absolutely protect a free, functioning press as well.”