FBI subpoenas USA Today for information on readers

The FBI issued a subpoena to USA Today for information on readers who accessed a story about two of its agents who were killed in Florida.

The subpoena was first reported by Politico, which noted that the subpoena was made public on Thursday. 

The subpoena concerned a USA Today story about two FBI agents who were fatally shot while serving a warrant in early February.

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Agents attempted to serve a warrant to a man suspected of child pornography. The agency said the suspect opened fire on the agents, Daniel Alfin and Laura Schwartzenberger, resulting in their deaths.

The suspect also died during the encounter.

The agency wrote in the subpoena that the information it was seeking “relates to a federal criminal investigation being conducted by the FBI.”

The FBI demanded records of IP addresses and other identifying information for computers and other electronic devices that accessed the USA Today story during a 35-minute window on Feb. 2, when the story was published and just after the incident occurred. The agency did not ask for names of the readers.

Gannett, USA Today’s publisher, filed a motion in D.C. federal court to quash the subpoena on May 28, arguing that the FBI did not follow basic Justice Department protocol for communicating with newsrooms before issuing the subpoena.

“The FBI did not communicate with Gannett, as the Department of Justice regulations require, in advance of sending the Subpoeana,” the publisher wrote. “In fact, the FBI faxed the subpoena to an office that has been closed during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

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“A government demand for records that would identify specific individuals who read specific expressive materials ... invades the First Amendment rights of both the publisher and reader, and must be quashed accordingly,” the company continued. 

Maribel Perez Wadsworth, Publisher of USA Today and President of USA Today Network, said in a statement to The Hill "we were surprised to receive this subpoena particularly in light of President BidenJoe BidenOvernight Defense: Senate panel adds B to Biden's defense budget | House passes bill to streamline visa process for Afghans who helped US | Pentagon confirms 7 Colombians arrested in Haiti leader's killing had US training On The Money: Senate braces for nasty debt ceiling fight | Democrats pushing for changes to bipartisan deal | Housing prices hit new high in June Hillicon Valley: Democrats introduce bill to hold platforms accountable for misinformation during health crises | Website outages hit Olympics, Amazon and major banks MORE’s recent statements in support of press freedom."

"The subpoena is also contrary to the Justice Department’s own guidelines concerning the narrow circumstances in which subpoenas can be issued to the news media. Our attorneys attempted to contact the FBI before we moved to fight the subpoena in court and afterward. Despite these attempts, we never received any substantive reply nor any meaningful explanation of the asserted basis for the subpoena." 

"We intend to fight the subpoena’s demand for identifying information about individuals who viewed the USA TODAY news report. Being forced to tell the government who reads what on our websites is a clear violation [of] the First Amendment," she continued. 

News of the subpoena comes as the Department of Justice faces criticism for seeking information from journalists during former President TrumpDonald TrumpNew Capitol Police chief to take over Friday Overnight Health Care: Biden officials says no change to masking guidance right now | Missouri Supreme Court rules in favor of Medicaid expansion | Mississippi's attorney general asks Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade Michael Wolff and the art of monetizing gossip MORE’s administration for leak investigations.

The Washington Post was the first to report that the Justice Department sought records from several of its reporters. CNN and The New York Times have also said the agency sought records from its journalists.

President Biden has said his administration would not engage in the practice.

Updated 5:28 p.m.