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Trump Justice Dept. secretly obtained CNN correspondent’s phone, email records

People walk outside CNN Center in Atlanta in 2018. The Justice Department under President Donald Trump secretly obtained the phone and email records of the CNN’s Pentagon correspondent, according to that news network and a Justice Department spokesman.
People walk outside CNN Center in Atlanta in 2018. The Justice Department under President Donald Trump secretly obtained the phone and email records of the CNN’s Pentagon correspondent, according to that news network and a Justice Department spokesman. (Ron Harris/AP)
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The Justice Department under President Donald Trump secretly obtained the phone and email records of CNN’s Pentagon correspondent, according to that news network and a Justice Department spokesman, again illustrating how the previous administration was willing to seek journalists’ data to investigate disclosures of information it preferred to remain secret.

CNN reported Thursday that the department had informed Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr that it had obtained her phone and email records for the two-month period between June 1, 2017, and July 31, 2017.

In that time frame, according to CNN, Starr reported on options the military had prepared to present to Trump on North Korea, U.S. action on a possible planned chemical attack in Syria and a military policy change to suspend the public release of information about American combat deaths in Afghanistan.

The network reported that a May 13 letter from the Justice Department disclosing the move “listed phone numbers for Starr’s Pentagon extension, the CNN Pentagon booth phone number and her home and cellphones, as well as Starr’s work and personal email accounts.” The letter said investigators had obtained what are known as phone “toll records,” which include calls made to and from the targeted phone and their duration, and “non-content information” from email accounts, according to CNN.

“CNN strongly condemns the secret collection of any aspect of a journalist’s correspondence, which is clearly protected by the First Amendment,” CNN President Jeff Zucker said in the network’s report Thursday. “We are asking for an immediate meeting with the Justice Department for an explanation.”

Anthony Coley, a Justice Department spokesman, said in a statement that “the legal process to seek these records was approved in 2020,” meaning it occurred during the Trump administration. He did not offer any other details of why the records were sought.

“Department leadership will soon meet with reporters to hear their concerns about recent notices and further convey Attorney General [Merrick] Garland’s staunch support of and commitment to a free and independent press,” he said.

Trump Justice Department secretly obtained Post reporters’ phone records

The Justice Department also revealed this month that under Trump it had secretly obtained Washington Post journalists’ phone records and tried to obtain their email records. The seizure appears related to reporting during the early months of Trump’s presidency and focused on Russia’s interference in the 2016 election.

The department disclosed those moves in three separate letters dated May 3 and addressed to Post reporters Ellen Nakashima and Greg Miller, and former Post reporter Adam Entous. The letters said the department had received phone records from April 15, 2017, to July 31, 2017, and asserted that prosecutors got a court order to obtain “non content communication records” for the reporters’ work email accounts but did not obtain such records.

When The Post reported on those letters, Marc Raimondi, another Justice Department spokesman, said, “The targets of these investigations are not the news media recipients but rather those with access to the national defense information who provided it to the media and thus failed to protect it as lawfully required.”

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Cameron Barr, The Post’s acting executive editor, said: “We are deeply troubled by this use of government power to seek access to the communications of journalists. The Department of Justice should immediately make clear its reasons for this intrusion into the activities of reporters doing their jobs, an activity protected under the First Amendment.”

Last week, John B. Kennedy, The Post’s general counsel, wrote to Garland protesting the seizure of the three reporters’ records without prior notice and asserting that the move appeared to violate the department’s own guidelines, which call generally for officials to first negotiate with news outlets, unless the attorney general determines doing so could threaten an investigation or pose a national security risk.

“The Department’s seizure of these records without prior notice appears to violate both the spirit and the letter of its stated requirements for obtaining records of members of the news media,” Kennedy wrote, adding later, “the Department’s conduct here was, at a minimum, a grave betrayal of trust in the Post and its journalists.”

William P. Barr, who was attorney general for almost all of 2020, did not return a message seeking comment Thursday on the request for Starr’s records. Jeffrey Rosen, his deputy who led the department as acting attorney general briefly after Barr resigned just before Christmas, referred questions to the Justice Department.

CNN reported that the Justice Department had not provided it any further explanation but that an official said Starr was never the target of the investigation.

Generally when federal prosecutors seek reporters’ records, they do so hoping to identify the government officials who provided them information. But media organizations and free press advocates have condemned the practice, which they say is meant to chill essential reporting on government activities. The department is supposed to exhaust all other sources of information before seeking to examine journalists’ records.

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The Justice Department also notably seized the communication records of a reporter for BuzzFeed News, Politico and the New York Times for a leak investigation that became public in 2018 and produced charges against James Wolfe, a former security director for the Senate Intelligence Committee who had dated the reporter. It was revealed this week, too, that the Trump Justice Department tried to use a grand jury subpoena to force Twitter to reveal the identity of whoever was behind @NunesAlt, an account that criticizes Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), a Trump ally. Twitter resisted the effort, and this year the department withdrew the request.

The Trump Justice Department was not shy about cracking down on so-called leaks. Trump’s first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, held a news conference to announce a vigorous effort to track down those in government who disclosed information to reporters, and asserted his department had more than tripled the number of leak investigations compared with the number that were ongoing at the end of the last administration. Trump was highly critical of reporting throughout his presidency — at The Post, CNN and elsewhere — frequently deriding the media as “fake news.”

The Obama administration also was notably aggressive, prosecuting more leak cases than all of its predecessors combined.