The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Biden Justice Dept. releases more details on secret seizures of journalists’ records

Attorney General Merrick Garland
Attorney General Merrick Garland (Ken Cedeno/Reuters)
Placeholder while article actions load

The Biden Justice Department on Wednesday released a more detailed accounting of recently revealed federal law enforcement efforts to secretly obtain journalists’ phone records, attempting to honor a public commitment to transparency and disclosing for the first time that Attorney General Merrick Garland personally approved keeping one case under wraps.

Among the records released Wednesday were chronologies of the department’s efforts to obtain records from New York Times, CNN and Washington Post reporters to advance leak investigations — all of which the department said began in the Trump administration with the approval of then-Attorney General William P. Barr.

The inquiries, though, dragged into the Biden administration, as officials did not immediately abandon the efforts or tell the reporters what had occurred.

The Biden Justice Department faced criticism when it revealed the efforts earlier this year; Wednesday’s release is the latest move to try to allay public concern.

In May, Biden said he would no longer allow his department to seize journalists’ phone and email records, calling the practice “simply wrong.” The following month, Garland met with executives of the The Post, the Times and CNN, and committed to “strong, durable rules” while implementing Biden’s directive. He did just that in July, issuing a memo that said the department “will no longer use compulsory legal process for the purpose of obtaining information from or records of members of the news media acting within the scope of newsgathering activities.”

Justice Department curtails seizure of reporters’ phone, email records in leak investigations

But the executives had also pressed Garland to offer more of an explanation of what happened to their reporters. Post Publisher Fred Ryan said in a statement Wednesday: “We are encouraged by the transparency provided in the reports released by the Justice Department today and appreciate the steps the Attorney General has taken to address press freedom violations and prevent them from being repeated in the future.”

The department had first revealed in early May that in the waning days of the Trump administration, it secretly obtained the phone records of three Washington Post journalists, and tried unsuccessfully to obtain records of who they were emailing. Similar notifications were made to a CNN reporter and four reporters at the New York Times.

In all three cases, the department had pursued reporters’ records as a means of trying to identify the sources of stories written in the first year of Trump’s presidency; the reporters themselves were not targets of investigation.

Free press advocates and news media executives decried the moves, saying they put a chill on journalists’ ability to learn and report information about government activities. The practice has been a bipartisan one. President Barack Obama’s Justice Department had also faced criticism for its aggressive leak-hunting efforts, including collecting reporter records, and had subsequently imposed tighter rules.

A former Marine was pulled over for tailgating. Police took $87,000 of his cash.

The chronologies released Wednesday largely confirmed information that was already public — through court records and reporting — about each episode. But they offered some new details about who approved what and when.

In April 2021, for example, Garland approved a request to delay notifying Barbara Starr, CNN’s miliary correspondent, that the department had obtained her telephone records and non-content information from her email accounts.

The department had been fighting with CNN’s parent company over the email records for months. In February, the company had finished turning over a limited set of records as part of an agreement, according to the department’s chronology, which says the request for a delay in notifying Starr was due to “investigators’ review of responsive materials having been constrained by the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The department revealed that the investigation that resulted in Post reporters’ records being seized was now closed; it made no similar assertions about the investigations involving New York Times and CNN journalists.

The department also released annual reports for 2019 and 2020 that briefly detail every episode in which officials sought information or records from media members, and it updated reports it already had released for 2017 and 2018. The document shows that within the Justice Department, internal discussions of investigations involving journalists jumped significantly, from 150 in 2019 to 223 last year. The 2020 cases included a number of requests for video or other reporting material to try to identify rioters at public protests, and one case involving threats made to a journalist.