The US Justice Department said Saturday that it will no longer secretly obtain reporters’ phone records during leak investigations, a practice criticized by news organizations and press freedom groups.
The revocation followed a promise made last month by Joe Biden, who said it was “just, just wrong” to seize journalists’ records and that he would not allow the practice.
Although the president’s comments in an interview were not immediately accompanied by a policy change, statements from the White House and the Justice Department on Saturday signaled the end of a tactic used for years.
Democratic and Republican administrations have used subpoenas and court orders to obtain journalists’ records in an effort to identify sources revealing classified information.
But the practice received new scrutiny in the past month when Justice Department officials alerted reporters in the Washington Post, CNN and the New York Times that their phone records had been obtained in the last year of the Trump administration.
The latest revelation came late Friday when the Times reported a gag order prohibiting the newspaper from revealing a secret court dispute over efforts to obtain the email records of four reporters. The fight started with Trump but persisted with Biden, whose justice department took steps to withdraw the order.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said no one in the White House was aware of the gag order as of Friday night, but that more generally, “the issuance of subpoenas for the records of reporters in leak investigations is not consistent with the department’s political direction. “
In a separate statement, a Justice Department spokesman, Anthony Coley, said that “in a change to its longstanding practice,” the department “will not seek mandatory due process in leak investigations to obtain information from members of the Justice Department. the media that do their job. ” .
He added: “The department strongly values a free press, which protects First Amendment values, and is committed to taking all appropriate measures to ensure the independence of journalists.”
By ruling out “mandatory due process” for reporters in leak investigations, the department also appeared to say it would not force journalists to reveal the identity of their sources in court.
The statement did not say whether the Justice Department would continue to carry out aggressive leak investigations without obtaining records. It also did not define who would be counted as a member of the media for policy purposes and how widely the protection would apply.
Still, it marked a surprising change. The Obama Justice Department, led by Attorney General Eric Holder, alerted the Associated Press in 2013 that it had secretly obtained two months of phone records from reporters and editors in what the senior AP executive called a “massive and unstoppable intrusion. precedents ”.
Holder announced a revised set of guidelines for leak investigations, including requiring clearance from the highest levels of the department before subpoenas for news media records can be issued.
But the Justice Department retained its prerogative to seize journalists’ records, and recent revelations show the practice continued into the Trump era.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism