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FBI withdraws USA Today subpoena

FBI withdraws USA Today subpoena
© Greg Nash

The FBI has withdrawn its subpoena asking USA Today to produce information on readers who accessed a story about the fatal shooting of two FBI agents in early February.

The subpoena issued in April but made public last Thursday concerned a story about agents who were fatally shot while serving a warrant in Florida to a man suspected of child pornography.

Agents asked for records of IP addresses and other information for computers and electronic devices that accessed the story during a half-hour window on Feb. 2, the day it was published. The subpoena was issued as part of a federal criminal investigation.

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Gannett, USA Today’s publisher, had filed a motion in D.C. federal court to quash the subpoena, arguing that the FBI didn’t follow basic protocol for communicating with newsrooms before issuing it.

But in a court filing on Saturday, Gannett said it was withdrawing its original motion because the subpoena had been withdrawn.

In an email to Gannett, an attorney for the Department of Justice (DOJ) said, “the child sexual exploitation offender subject of the investigation has at this time been identified via other means.”

Charles Tobin, who represents Gannett, told USA Today that the decision to withdraw the subpoena serves as a reminder of the importance of an independent press.

“The government's own guidelines require the FBI to pursue alternative sources before subpoenaing a newspaper,” Tobin said. “This is a reminder of why that restraint makes perfect sense."

In a statement to The Hill, the FBI said "the administrative subpoena was issued in connection with a child exploitation investigation and was limited to subscriber-related information in a narrow time window. It did not seek any communications records of journalists. The subpoena is being withdrawn because intervening investigative developments have rendered it unnecessary."

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The motion’s withdrawal came as the Justice Department said it would no longer secretly obtain reporters’ private phone records when carrying out leak investigations.

The DOJ had been under scrutiny in recent weeks after The Washington Post, CNN and The New York Times revealed efforts the DOJ took to uncover records from their reporters under the Trump administration. Most recently, the Times revealed that the DOJ had imposed a gag order to keep the investigation secret.

Updated at 1:43 p.m.