President Donald Trump’s Justice Department “secretly” obtained a CNN reporter‘s records related to phone calls and email, the network said on Thursday.
CNN reported that the department informed Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr last week about the move, in which prosecutors were able to get email- and phone-related records for two months in 2017. Those records included both her personal and work phones and emails.
A Justice Department spokesperson, Anthony Coley, confirmed to POLITICO on Thursday night that the legal process to get the records was approved last year, but he did not explain why the records were sought.
The news comes less than two weeks after The Washington Post reported that Trump’s Justice Department secretly got three Post reporters’ phone records and tried to get their email logs. The move was in an apparent bid to uncover the sources for a story in 2017 on a federal investigation into alleged links between Russia and the then-president’s campaign.
“This is a big story that just got bigger,” Bruce Brown, the executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said in a statement. “That a journalist from another news organization had communications records seized by the Trump Justice Department suggests that the last administration’s efforts to intrude into reporter-source relationships and chill newsgathering is more sweeping than we originally thought.”
Brown called on the Justice Department to give a “detailed explanation” of what happened and why, and how “it plans to strengthen protections for the free flow of information to the public.” Coley told POLITICO that department leaders are convening with reporters “soon” to “hear their concerns” and “further convey Attorney General [Merrick] Garland’s staunch support of and commitment to a free and independent press.”
CNN President Jeff Zucker criticized the Justice Department’s actions.
The Trump administration secretly sought and obtained the 2017 phone and email records of a CNN correspondent, the latest instance where federal prosecutors have taken aggressive steps targeting journalists in leak investigations.
The Justice Department informed CNN Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr, in a May 13 letter, that prosecutors had obtained her phone and email records covering two months, between June 1, 2017 to July 31, 2017. The letter listed phone numbers for 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.
It is unclear when the investigation was opened, whether it happened under Attorney General Jeff Sessions or Attorney General William Barr, and what the Trump administration was looking for in Starr’s records. The Justice Department confirmed the records were sought through the courts last year but provided no further explanation or context.
A Justice Department official confirmed that Starr was never the target of any investigation.
The seizure of Starr’s records is the third disclosure in as many weeks where the Trump administration used its Justice Department to secretly obtain communications of journalists or to expose the identity of critics of former President Donald Trump’s allies.
“CNN strongly condemns the secret collection of any aspect of a journalist’s correspondence, which is clearly protected by the First Amendment,” said CNN President Jeff Zucker. “We are asking for an immediate meeting with the Justice Department for an explanation.”
The Obama administration also came under criticism for its heavy-handed tactics toward leak investigations involving journalists. But the Trump administration aggressively pursued leak investigations as the former President frequently railed against the leaks coming out of the government. The latest disclosures appear to show the Justice Department targeting news organizations and social media companies particularly loathed by the former President.
Three Washington Post reporters who covered the FBI’s Russia investigation were told earlier this month that last year the Justice Department had obtained their phone records from 2017. In 2018, the Justice Department disclosed it had also obtained 2017 phone and email communications from a reporter for BuzzFeed, Politico and the
New York Times who had written stories about Russia.Court filings revealed last week that the Justice Department under Barr also subpoenaed Twitter in late November 2020 to try to learn the identity of the user behind a parody account that criticized Rep. Devin Nunes, a California Republican and stalwart Trump ally, which Twitter suggested was part of an effort to try to unmask Nunes’ critics and chill their speech.
Anthony Coley, DOJ’s director of public affairs and a senior advisor to Attorney General Merrick Garland, said in a statement to CNN that the decision to use the legal process to obtain Starr’s communications was approved in 2020, during the Trump administration.
“Department leadership will soon meet with reporters to hear their concerns about recent notices and further convey Attorney General Garland’s staunch support of and commitment to a free and independent press,” Coley said.
Free speech and government transparency advocates warn that the seizure of journalists’ records has a chilling impact on newsgathering and discourages whistleblowers from coming forward with government wrongdoing.
“Now for the second time in just about as many weeks we’ve seen these disclosures that the DOJ has gone about obtaining records without advance notice to the journalist or to the news organization to give the reporter a chance to contest what DOJ is seeking,” said Bruce Brown, Executive Director, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
“Twice now we’ve seen in the prior administration that toward the end of their time in office they used this route to intrude into the very heart of what newsgathering is about,” Brown continued. “It’s deeply disconcerting and the new team at DOJ has a real imperative in front of it now to very quickly explain to these newsrooms, and to press freedom advocates, what happened and how did it happen, and why did it happen and what they can do to ensure in this administration and future administrations this doesn’t happen again.”
“CNN strongly condemns the secret collection of any aspect of a journalist’s correspondence, which is clearly protected by the First Amendment,” Zucker said.
The Post’s story on Russia, which indicated then-Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak had said he discussed Russia-related topics with Jeff Sessions, a Trump campaign adviser at the time, drew the ire of Trump in the early months of his term. Two weeks after the story, Sessions — who at that time was attorney general — announced a crackdown on a supposed “culture of leaks.”
A Justice Department spokesperson, Marc Raimondi, said that the goal of the investigation involving Post reporters wasn’t to prosecute reporters.
“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,” Raimondi said.
CNN said it was unclear when the investigation involving Starr began, whether it was under Sessions or Attorney General William Barr, and what the Trump administration might have been searching for.
Under guidelines changed in 2013 under then-Attorney General Eric Holder after controversies about the department’s use of law enforcement mechanisms involving journalists, the DOJ is required to notify journalists about searches within 45 days, or 90 days under pressing circumstances. These notices’ timing suggests the Justice Department received the information under President Joe Biden.