WASHINGTON – The Justice Department under President Donald J. Trump has secretly obtained the phone records for three Washington Post reporters from the early months of the Trump administration, the newspaper said on Friday.
Prosecutors searched for records of reporters’ work, home and cell phone numbers from April to July 2017 to find out who had spoken to them.
“We are deeply concerned about this use of governance to gain access to journalists’ communications,” said Cameron Barr, the Post’s acting editor-in-chief, in a statement. “The Justice Department should immediately clarify its reasons for interfering with the activities of reporters doing their job, an activity protected by the first amendment.”
The department’s decision to seek a court order for the records made in 2020 would have required the approval of Attorney General William P. Barr, a department official said.
The Justice Department, under the Trump administration, had also indicted a former Senate assistant over his contacts with three reporters in a case in which prosecutors secretly confiscated years’ worth of phone and email records from a New York Times reporter. This case signaled a continuation of the aggressive pursuit of leaks under the Obama administration.
Marc Raimondi, a Justice Department spokesman, said on Friday in a statement regarding the seized postal records: “Although the department is rare, it follows the procedures set out in its media policy guidelines when looking for legal procedures to and not to telephone charges Email records of content received from media members as part of a criminal investigation into unauthorized disclosure of classified information. “
He added, “The targets of these investigations are not those who receive the news media, but rather those with access to the national defense information they made available to the media and therefore did not protect them as required by law.”
According to its guidelines, the Justice Department should exhaust other investigative steps before seeking permission to receive telephone recordings or e-mails from journalists from telecommunications companies. In addition, the division must “strike the right balance between a number of important interests”, it says in its guidelines, such as “Maintaining the essential role of the free press in promoting government accountability and an open society”.
Leak cases, as known in the Justice Department, are notoriously difficult to track and require FBI agents to devote significant time to cases that rarely lead to charges.
It wasn’t clear what caused the Justice Department to seize the Post’s records, but in July 2017 the newspaper published an article about Sergey I. Kislyak, the then Russian Ambassador to the United States, and Jeff Sessions, the Attorney General at the time the publication of the article.
The Post reported that the two men discussed the Trump campaign during the 2016 presidential election when Mr. Sessions was a Republican Senator from Alabama and a prominent supporter of Mr. Trump. The article referred to U.S. surveillance sections, which are highly ranked and among the government’s best kept secrets.
In addition to the phone records of the Post reporters – Ellen Nakashima, Greg Miller and Adam Entous who now work at The New Yorker – prosecutors have also received a court order to obtain metadata for the reporters’ email accounts, the company said Newspaper with.
The New York Times also reported in June 2017 that surveillance wiretaps suggested Mr Kislyak was discussing a private meeting with Mr Sessions at a Trump campaign event at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington. The Times has received no indication that their reporters’ records have been confiscated.
The media leaks enraged Mr Trump, who repeatedly railed against them, particularly those revealing details of the government’s efforts to investigate Russia’s interference in the 2016 election and whether any of his campaign aides had conspired with Russia.
In August 2017, as Attorney General, Mr. Sessions condemned the “dramatic increase in the number of unauthorized disclosures of classified national security information in recent months”.
Under the Obama administration, the Justice Department also aggressively prosecuted officials who provided sensitive information to reporters. In 2013, prosecutors obtained the phone recordings from reporters and editors from The Associated Press. In this case, law enforcement officers obtained the records for more than 20 phone lines from their offices and journalists, including their home and cell phone numbers.
In addition, the Justice Department confiscated the phone records of James Rosen, then a Fox News reporter, after one of his articles contained details of a secret United States report on North Korea. In an affidavit, Mr. Rosen was described as “at least as a helper, advocate and / or co-conspirator”.
The Justice Department’s decision to search the phone records was widely condemned in the news media.
In 2013, then Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. issued new guidelines that severely restricted the circumstances in which journalists’ records could be accessed, but did not prevent prosecutors from keeping phone records and emails for national security reasons to search.
In an email from July 2017, Sarah Isgur Flores, then a top Justice Department spokeswoman, tried to cast doubt that a meeting between Mr Kislyak and Mr Sessions had even taken place. She described the section as “exposed” and challenged its credibility when defending Mr. Sessions on the news media.
Ms. Isgur described the coverage as “serious leaks for our national security”. The email was received from reporter Jason Leopold of BuzzFeed News under the Freedom of Information Act.
Last year the Trump administration released confidential transcripts from Mr. Kislyak speaking with Mr. Trump’s former National Security Advisor Michael T. Flynn. The documents also revealed extremely delicate capabilities of the FBI, showing that the office was able to monitor the phone line at the Russian Embassy in Washington even before a call from Mr. Kislyak connected to Mr. Flynn’s voicemail.
In his extensive investigation, Robert S. Mueller III, the special adviser, “found no evidence that Kislyak spoke or had the opportunity to speak to Trump or Sessions after the speech,” his office’s 2019 report said.