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Department of Justice says it will no longer secretly seize journalists’ records in leak probes

US Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (L) talks with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during a rally with fellow Democrats before voting on H.R. 1, or the People Act, on the East Steps of the US Capitol on March 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. (AFP photo)
A police officer stands outside The New York Times building in New York on June 28, 2018. (Photo by AP)

The US Justice Department has announced that it will no longer seize reporters’ records during leak investigations, a major policy shift that follows blowback from recent disclosures that federal prosecutors were aggressively seeking data of journalists to identify their sources.

“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,” Anthony Coley, the department's director of public affairs, said in a statement.

The announcement came weeks after The Washington Post, CNN and The New York Times were notified that the Justice Department had secretly seized their reporters' phone and email records during the early months of the administration of former President Donald Trump.

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 pledge marks a policy shift in a longstanding practice that has persisted for years, including under former presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, and has been condemned by news organizations and press freedom advocacy groups.

The New York Times reported that federal prosecutors had been actively pursuing email data of four of its reporters, which began during the final days of the Trump administration and continued well into the Joe Biden administration.

The Times also reported about a gag order issued by Biden's Justice Department that barred the newspaper from revealing the investigation, and was lifted a day before the newly announced policy overhaul.

The White House, however, claimed that it had no prior knowledge of the gag order on The New York Times, despite the fact that it was issued under the current administration.  

“As appropriate given the independence of the Justice Department in specific criminal cases, no one at the White House was aware of the gag order until Friday night,” Press Secretary Jen Psaki said on Saturday.

Successive US administrations—both Republicans and Democrats-- have used subpoenas and court orders to obtain journalists' records as part of efforts to identify sources who have leaked classified information to the news media.

The practice received renewed scrutiny over the past month as DOJ officials notified a number of journalists that their phone records had been secretly obtained in the course of investigations into leaked information.

The Justice Department ruled out “compulsory legal process” for reporters in leak investigations, appearing to suggest that it would no longer force journalists to reveal the identity of their sources in court.

News organizations and press freedom groups welcomed the policy change, but said serious questions remained about what exactly happened in each of these individual cases.

“To ensure it does not happen again, we look forward to pursuing additional policy reforms with the Biden administration to further safeguard these essential rights,” Bruce D. Brown, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said in a statement.

New York Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger said in a statement that while the policy shift was welcome news, “there is significantly more that needs to be done and we are still awaiting an explanation on why the Department of Justice moved so aggressively to seize journalists’ records.”

Washington Post executive editor Sally Buzbee said the newspaper was calling on the Biden administration and Justice Department “to provide a full accounting of the chain of events in both administrations and to implement enduring protections to prevent any future recurrence.”

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