The Department of Justice (DOJ) will no longer go to court to identify media sources in leak investigations, a spokesman announced Saturday.
“Going forward, consistent with the President’s direction, this Department of Justice, in a change to its longstanding practice, will not seek compulsory legal process in leak investigations to obtain source information from members of the news media doing their jobs. The Department strongly values a free press, protecting First Amendment values, and is committed to taking all appropriate steps to ensure the independence of journalists,” DOJ Spokesman Anthony Coley said.
The New York Times revealed on Friday that both the Trump and Biden administrations attempted to subpoena its reporters’ emails to identify sources. The Biden administration employed a gag order to prevent the Times and Google, which operates the Times’ email servers, from publicly discussing the subpoena attempts.
Justice Department spokesman: “Going forward, consistent with the President’s direction, this Department of Justice — in a change to its longstanding practice — will not seek compulsory legal process in leak investigations to obtain source information from members of the news…”
— Kaitlan Collins (@kaitlancollins) June 5, 2021
The investigation reportedly involved former FBI Director James Comey, who admitted in 2017 to leaking a memo about a meeting he had with then-President Donald Trump to the Times. The Times believes that, due to timing, the subpoena and gag order targeted an article written by reporters Matt Apuzzo, Michael S. Schmidt, Adam Goldman, and Eric Lichtblau about the FBI’s investigation into Hillary Clinton’s private email server. (RELATED: Republican Asks For Comey Memo On Clinton Meeting With Loretta Lynch)
“The Justice Department relentlessly pursued the identity of sources for coverage that was clearly in the public interest in the final 15 days of the Trump administration. And the Biden administration continued to pursue it. As I said before, it profoundly undermines press freedom,” New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet said.
The DOJ has targeted reporters in leak investigations since at least the Kennedy administration. President John F. Kennedy used the DOJ, FBI, and CIA to investigate reporters who published articles on the Soviet Union’s missile systems. President Richard Nixon employed a team of “plumbers” to “patch leaks” involving the Pentagon Papers and Watergate scandal.
In recent years, the DOJ has used gag orders to prevent media organizations from even talking about subpoenas. U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara subpoenaed the IP addresses of commenters on a 2015 Reason magazine article, claiming that they threatened a federal judge. He also requested and received a gag order preventing Reason from disclosing the subpoena.
USA Today received a subpoena in April from the FBI. The bureau is seeking the IP addresses of readers of a February article about the death of two FBI agents.