The Trump administration’s Justice Department secretly looked at the phone records of four New York Times reporters for nearly four months in 2017 as part of an investigation into a leak. The revelation was made on Wednesday (2) by the Biden administration.
It was the latest in a series of uncovered cases in which the Trump administration obtained secret access to journalists’ communication files in an attempt to uncover their sources. Last month, the Biden administration’s Justice Department reported on the spying of telephone recordings of journalists working for the Washington Post and the telephone and email recordings of a CNN reporter carried out during the Trump administration.
NYT editor-in-chief Dean Baquet condemned the Trump administration’s action.
“Taking the telephone records of journalists deeply subverts press freedom,” he said in a statement. “It threatens to silence the sources on which we depend to provide the public with essential information about what the government is doing.”
Last month, when cases of seizure of communications tapes involving reporters from the Washington Post and CNN came to light, President Joe Biden said he would not let the Justice Department under his administration take this step. , which he described as “simply false”.
Referring to this statement, Baquet added, “President Biden has stated that this type of interference in the free press will not be tolerated under his administration. We hope that the Department of Justice will explain why this step was taken and what steps are being taken to ensure that this does not happen again. “
Justice Department spokesman Anthony Coley said law enforcement authorities obtained the files in 2020 and “members of the press have now been made aware of every case” of the inquiries into the 2019-2020 leaks that the ministry has requested to access your records.
The Department informed the NYT that agents seized telephone records for the period January 14 to April 30, 2017, from four of the newspaper’s reporters: Matt Apuzzo, Adam Goldman, Eric Lichtblau, and Michael S. Schmidt. The government also obtained a court order to seize the recordings of his emails (not the content of the messages), but claims it did not access the recordings.
The Justice Department did not specify which report was under investigation. But the names of the reporters and the dates involved suggest that the investigation into the leak was linked to information cited in an April 22, 2017 text, signed by the four reporters on the handling of investigations by the then FBI director. , James Comey, politically charged in the 2016 presidential election.
Discussing Comey’s unorthodox decision to announce in July 2016 that the FBI recommended that Hillary Clinton not be criminally charged with using a private mail server to handle government matters while she was Secretary of State , the report cites a document obtained from Russia by hackers working for the Dutch intelligence services. The document, whose existence was classified, is said to have played a key role in Comey’s decision on the Hillary Clinton case.
The document was described as a note or email written by a Democratic agent who expressed confidence that then Attorney General Loretta Lynch would not let the Hillary investigation go too far. Russian hackers were able to access the document, but, intelligence officials concluded, it was apparently not among the documents Russia sent to WikiLeaks.
Comey is said to have feared that if Lynch’s decision not to prosecute Hillary came from Lynch and then Russia made the document public, the text would be used to cast doubt on the independence of the investigation and the legitimacy of its outcome.
In January 2020, the NYT reported that Trump-era agents had investigated whether Comey was the source of the unauthorized disclosure made in that 2017 article.
Comey has been under the microscope since 2017, after Trump sacked him as director of the FBI. After his resignation, Comey arranged – through his friend Daniel Richman, a law professor at Columbia University – to disclose to the NYT the accounts of several of his conversations with the president regarding the Russia investigation.
According to three people briefed on Comey’s investigation, she eventually received the codename Arctic Haze (Arctic Mist). Its objective would have evolved over time; after starting to investigate whether they could indict Comey for leaking his conversations with Trump, investigators reportedly continued to see if he had anything to do with revealing the document’s existence.
As part of the effort, the FBI also reportedly summoned Google to appear in 2020, seeking information about emails exchanged between Daniel Richman and The New York Times.
But in November 2020, some prosecutors concluded that the FBI had found no evidence to support criminal charges against Comey. They discussed the possibility of terminating the investigation.
Earlier this year, prosecutors learned that the FBI did not want to close the case, in part because its agents still wanted to question Comey. Questioning the subject of an investigation is often seen as a final step before closing the case or filing an indictment.
Last month, the FBI asked Comey’s attorney if he would agree to be interviewed. Comey reportedly refused the request.
From the midst of George W. Bush’s administration to the administrations of Barack Obama and Donald Trump, the Justice Department has more aggressively investigated criminal leaks.
Eric Lichtblau – who no longer works for the NYT – came to the attention of investigators earlier in this timeframe because he co-wrote an NYT article in 2005 revealing Bush’s secretly authorized Bush surveillance program without a warrant. after the attacks of September 11, 2001. The Bush administration created a special task force to track down the sources of this article, and its new approach ended up being adopted in unrelated cases during the Obama administration as well.
In 2013, Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman – who at the time worked for the Associated Press news agency and had given the scoop on a bombing planned by an Al Qaeda affiliate in Yemen – were informed that the Obama-era Justice Department had secretly requested access to two months of his phone records.
It also emerged the same month that, in an investigation into a leaked Fox News article on North Korea’s nuclear program, the Obama-era Justice Department used a search warrant to gain access to th – emails from a Fox News reporter – and characterized the reporter as a criminal accomplice.
The revelations sparked outrage from politicians on both sides, and Obama called on then Attorney General Eric Holder to review the rules on criminal investigations affecting the media.
Holder tightened the rules, strengthening the preference for prior notification to a news organization of a planned court order so that he can negotiate or fight the scope of the investigation in court. After the changes, the incidence of new cases of leaks declined dramatically during Obama’s second term.
But the practice resurfaced under Trump, who called the press an “enemy of the people.”
In August 2017, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said the number of investigations into the leaks had tripled. And it’s now clear that under his successor, William Barr, the Justice Department has further stepped up its aggressive approach to investigating the leaks.