WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) – The US Justice Department under the Trump administration targeted the phone and e-mail records of a prominent CNN journalist who covers the Pentagon as part of an investigation into the apparent disclosure of classified information, the network revealed on Thursday (May 20).
Federal prosecutors secretly obtained the records, which covered a two-month period beginning in June 2017.
In a letter to CNN, prosecutors acknowledged that they not only sought records for Ms Barbara Starr’s work and personal e-mail accounts, but also phone records for her offices at the Pentagon and at home, as well as for her cellphones.
It was not clear which CNN article prompted the Justice Department to obtain the records, but seeking them is supposed to be the last step that Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents and prosecutors take after exhausting all other efforts to uncover the source of sensitive information.
“CNN strongly condemns the secret collection of any aspect of a journalist’s correspondence, which is clearly protected by the First Amendment,” said Mr Jeff Zucker, the network’s president. “We are asking for an immediate meeting with the Justice Department for an explanation.”
CNN said the department had received “non-content information” from Ms Starr’s e-mail accounts. That means prosecutors were able to see who sent e-mails and when, but were not able to read them.
The disclosure that the Justice Department had seized the CNN reporter’s records comes less than two weeks after prosecutors revealed that they had secretly obtained the phone records of three reporters at The Washington Post in the early months of the Trump administration.
The Justice Department under then President Donald Trump also prosecuted a former Senate aide over his contacts with reporters in a case where prosecutors secretly seized years’ worth of a New York Times reporter’s phone and e-mail records.
In the case of The Post, the reporters had written an article during that time period that referred to US surveillance intercepts, which are highly classified and some of the most closely held secrets in the government.
A spokesman for the Justice Department, Mr Anthony Coley, said in a statement on Thursday that “the records at issue relate to 2017, and the legal process to seek these records was approved in 2020”.
He added that “department leadership will soon meet reporters to hear their concerns about recent notices” and to impart Attorney-General Merrick Garland’s “staunch support of and commitment to a free and independent press”.
The Justice Department’s decision to seek a court order for the CNN reporter’s records would have required the approval of the attorney-general at the time, Mr William Barr, as it would have in the Post case.
Mr Trump frequently took aim at CNN and The Post, accusing the outlets of peddling “fake news”.
In early 2017, he said he had directed the Justice Department to look into the leaks, which he called “criminal”.
Several months after Mr Trump’s comments, Mr Jeff Sessions, the attorney-general at the time, announced that the Justice Department was pursuing about three times as many leak investigations as were open at the end of the Obama administration.
Mr Sessions said the FBI had created a counter-intelligence unit to specialise in such cases. Former federal law enforcement officials said the leak cases were consolidated, with prosecutors and agents working them. Leak prosecutions are rare and notoriously difficult.
The Obama administration oversaw nearly a dozen leak-related prosecutions, more than that for all previous presidents combined.
The Justice Department’s rules require investigators to exhaust all other ways to obtain the information they are seeking before examining reporters’ phone logs or subpoenaing journalists for notes or testimony that could force them to help investigators to identify their confidential sources, or face imprisonment for contempt. The rules are intended to limit any chilling effect on the news-gathering process.
After the department under President Barack Obama subpoenaed the phone records of editors and reporters at The Associated Press and Fox News in separate leak investigations, the administration endured a backlash from the news media.
In 2013, then Attorney-General Eric Holder revised Justice Department rules to further tighten limits on when the government is allowed to subpoena telephone companies for logs of a reporter’s phone calls. The changes made it harder for law enforcement officials to obtain such records without providing advance notice and giving news organisations a chance to contest the request in court.
But that is unless the attorney-general “determines that, for compelling reasons, such negotiations or notice would pose a clear and substantial threat to the integrity of the investigation, risk grave harm to national security, or present an imminent risk of death or serious bodily harm”, according to the guidelines.
Typically, the federal agencies that make the criminal referrals to the Justice Department have to answer a list of 11 questions about the leak and the damage it caused, including how widely the information was disseminated throughout the government and whether it was accurate.