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Justice Dept. to no longer seize reporters' records for leak probes

Justice Dept. to no longer seize reporters' records for leak probes
© Greg Nash

The Department of Justice (DOJ) announced Saturday that it will no longer secretly obtain reporters' private phone records as part of investigations into leaks, confirming a shift in policy under the Biden administration.

The move marks a reversal of a longstanding government practice to try to uncover reporters' sources, efforts that news organizations have decried. It comes amid a flood of criticism over a push by the DOJ during both the Trump and Biden administrations to obtain communications logs from reporters of various outlets.

“DOJ has now completed a review to determine all instances in which the Department had pending compulsory requests from reporters in leak investigations. All reporters involved have now been notified," DOJ spokesperson Anthony Coley said Saturday.

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"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," Coley added. "The Department strongly values a free press, protecting First Amendment values, and is committed to taking all appropriate steps to ensure the independence of journalists.”

The statement comes after it was revealed that a gag order was placed on executives and reporters for The New York Times over efforts by the DOJ to obtain communications logs from some of its reporters. The gag order was reportedly put in place to keep the investigation from being publicized.

White House press secretary Jen PsakiJen PsakiOvernight Defense: Pentagon pulling some air defense assets from Middle East | Dems introduce resolution apologizing to LGBT community for discrimination | White House denies pausing military aid package to Ukraine White House denies pausing military aid package to Ukraine Joe Rogan slams CNN's Stelter: 'Your show is f---ing terrible' MORE said in a statement Saturday that the White House was unaware of the gag order until Friday while reiterating the DOJ's commitment to reforming its tactics.

“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,” Psaki said.

“While the White House does not intervene in criminal investigations, the issuing of subpoenas for the records of reporters in leak investigations is not consistent with the President’s policy direction to the Department, and the Department of Justice has reconfirmed it will not be used moving forward.”

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The Biden administration announced the change after The Times revealed that the DOJ tried to access email logs of four reporters in an effort to identify their sources.

The latest disclosure compounds on other revelations that the DOJ under former President Trump seized phone records from 2017 from four Times reporters and from other reporters for The Washington Post and CNN.

President BidenJoe BidenObama: Ensuring democracy 'continues to work effectively' keeps me 'up at night' New Jersey landlords prohibited from asking potential tenants about criminal records Overnight Defense: Pentagon pulling some air defense assets from Middle East | Dems introduce resolution apologizing to LGBT community for discrimination | White House denies pausing military aid package to Ukraine MORE panned the previously publicized efforts last month as “wrong” and said he would not allow his administration to seize logs of reporters’ communications.

The reversal from the Justice Department is a key change from the historic tactics by administrations of both parties for leak investigations, which seek to uncover sources used in various articles. 

The investigative tool has been panned by media advocates for decades but was thrust back into the spotlight after the revelations of the Justice Department’s efforts in recent years.

Updated: 12:25 p.m.