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Trump DOJ used Obama/Bush move to seize reporters’ phone/email records

A view of the Pentagon. (AFP/Getty Images/TNS)
May 21, 2021

On Thursday, CNN reported that the Department of Justice under President Donald Trump had secretly seized the phone and email records of the network’s longtime Pentagon reporter, Barbara Starr. Seizures of journalists’ records were also done by the Bush and Obama administrations.

CNN reported that the DOJ under President Joe Biden’s administration had notified Starr in a May 13 letter that prosecutors had obtained her phone and email records between June 1, 2017 to July 31, 2017. In all, the Biden DOJ letter stated Starr’s Pentagon extension, the CNN Pentagon booth phone number and her home and cell phones, as well as Starr’s work and personal email accounts, were subject to the two-month records seizure.

Earlier this month, the Washington Post reported three of its reporters —Ellen Nakashima, Greg Miller and Adam Entous, who has since left the Post — were notified in letters dated May 3 that the Justice Department had obtained records for their home, work or cellphone numbers for a period from April 15, 2017, to July 31, 2017.

Neither Starr nor the Washington Post reporters were told the reason for the records seizures and they do not appear to be suspected of any wrongdoing. Instead, the records seizures appear to have been part of a Trump-era leak investigation.

DOJ spokesman Marc Raimondi said in a statement responding to the Washington Post’s story that, “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.”

Previous administrations have used this method of seizing reporter’s records to identify government leakers. In 2006, under then-President George W. Bush, government officials allegedly tracked New York Times reporter James Risen’s calls and emails in an attempt to find who his government sources were for his reporting on CIA efforts to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program. In 2011, Risen said he believed the leak investigation continued even under President Barack Obama.

The Washington Examiner reported Risen was eventually subpoenaed to testify against Jeffrey Sterling, a former CIA officer charged with leaking details about the operation to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program. While Risen refused to name his sources, Sterling was eventually convicted in 2015 of leaking. The New York Times reported at the time that prosecutors argued that telephone records and emails showed Sterling and Risen talked frequently, and prosecutors argued that only Mr. Sterling had the information, the motive and the opportunity to leak it.

The phone and email records of the Associated Press were similarly targeted as part of a leak investigation. In 2013, then-President Obama’s DOJ informed Associated Press that the records of more than 20 telephone lines of its offices and journalists, including their home phones and cellphones, were swept up as part of a leak investigation into Associated Press reporting about the CIA’s disruption of a Yemen-based terrorist plot to bomb an airliner.

In 2013, the Guardian reported the Obama-era FBI also secretly sought and obtained all of Fox News reporter James Rosen’s correspondence with State Department security adviser Stephen Jin-Woo Kim, as part of another leak investigation. In this case, Rosen was also labeled a “criminal co-conspirator” with the Obama DOJ saying Rosen was “at the very least, either as an aider, abettor and/or co-conspirator.”

Addressing the latest leak investigation efforts involving the three Washington Post reporters, Raimondi said, “While rare, the Department follows the established procedures within its media guidelines policy when seeking legal process to obtain telephone toll records and non-content email records from media members as part of a criminal investigation into the unauthorized disclosure of classified information.”

On Thursday, the Military Reporters and Editors Association (MRE) expressed outrage at the surveillance against CNN’s Starr.

“A free press is so important to democracy that our Founders rightfully enshrined the right to free speech in the First Amendment. When government officials fail to respect that right, they betray the Constitution,” MRE President Jeff Schogol said.

“Whatever the Justice Department’s rationale for seizing reporters’ personal records, such an attack on the First Amendment is clearly meant to prevent sources from talking to journalists, creating a chilling effect on newsgathering. We call on Attorney General Merrick Garland to provide a full explanation of why the Justice Department subpoenaed the personal records of Starr and other reporters. We also request that the Defense Department take every effort to protect the communications of all the reporters who cover the building. No administration has the right to intimidate journalists. Democracy cannot survive without an open and public discourse,” Schogol added.