US Justice Dept gagged NYT execs in attempt to seize reporters' emails

Biden's pledge on media freedom may be easier said than done

The Biden administration disclosed to the newspaper that the Trump administration's Justice Department had seized almost four months of phone records in 2017 from reporters Matt Apuzzo, Adam Goldman, Eric Lichtblau and Michael Schmidt.

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.

"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. Lichtblau has since left the newspaper.

Later in May, the Justice Department revealed the previous administration had also secretly obtained phone and email records from 2017 of CNN's pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr. Though Biden's comments in an interview were not immediately accompanied by any change in policy, a pair of statements from the White House and Justice Department on Saturday signaled an official turnabout from an investigative tactic that has persisted for years. The Justice Department did not indicate which of their articles was being scrutinized, but The Times said the reporters and timing suggested it was an April 2017 report about FBI Director James Comey's handling of politically sensitive investigations during the 2016 election.

In addition to the phone records seizures disclosed over the past month regarding the reporters, the department won guilty pleas from a former government contractor who mailed a classified report to a news organization and a former Senate committee aide who admitted lying to the Federal Bureau of Investigation about his contacts with a reporter.

The order prevented executives from disclosing the government's efforts even to the executive editor, Dean Baquet, and other newsroom leaders, it said.

The decision would mark a break from Democratic and Republican predecessors alike, whose administrations have seized reporter call logs in an effort to identify sources of classified information.

The Justice Department says it has now concluded notifying the media organizations whose phone records were accessed.

In a separate statement, Justice Department spokesman Anthony Coley said that "in a change to its longstanding practice", the department "will not seek compulsory legal process in leak investigations to obtain source information from members of the news media doing their jobs".

The Trump administration announced a crackdown on leaks in 2017 as part of an aggressive stance.

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