The Washington Post reacted with anger after learning that its reporters were investigated after the newspaper published sensitive, leaked material concerning the Trump administration.
The Post on Friday revealed that three reporters were advised last week that their phone call records were reviewed by the Department of Justice as the Trump administration sought to investigate the vast amount of information leaked to the media in the administration’s early days.
“We are deeply troubled by this use of government power to seek access to the communications of journalists. The Department of Justice should immediately make clear its reasons for this intrusion into the activities of reporters doing their jobs, an activity protected under the First Amendment,” said Post acting Executive Editor Cameron Barr, according to the newspaper.
The phone records were from a period in 2017 when the reporters involved wrote high-profile Trump/Russia stories. DOJ says its leadership approved the decision to seek those records just last year. https://t.co/drKWMLmG9m
— Mark Berman (@markberman) May 7, 2021
The Post suggested that the three reporters were being investigated due to their roles in a July 2017 story claiming Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak said that in 2016, he discussed issues concerning Russia with Jeff Sessions, who at the time was a U.S. senator from Alabama and would later become attorney general.
The Justice Department defended its conduct in checking up on the three reporters.
“While rare, the Department follows the established procedures within its media guidelines policy when seeking legal process to obtain telephone toll records and non-content email records from media members as part of a criminal investigation into unauthorized disclosure of classified information,” said Marc Raimondi, a spokesman for the Justice Department, according to The Post.
“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,” he said.
The Post reported that the records were reviewed in 2020.
“Parts of the timeline of the leak investigation are still unclear, and many of those details are often withheld by investigators. Under Justice Department regulations that guide investigations involving media records, the department is usually required to eventually tell the news organization that it took the step of obtaining such records,” The Post reported. “In this case, the decision to get the records occurred during the Trump administration and the notification of the reporters fell to the Biden administration.”
The records obtained would show who the reporters were in contact with, but not the content of any communications.
Even though the intent of the investigation was to determine who was leaking sensitive information to the media, the media bristled at the notion.
Abuse of power? Justice Dept. Seized Washington Post’s Phone Records to spy on leaks https://t.co/rcbg7sWJg8
— Jane Mayer (@JaneMayerNYer) May 8, 2021
The incident “raises serious First Amendment concerns because it interferes with the free flow of information to the public,” said Bruce Brown, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, according to The Post.
He said the Justice Department must explain “exactly when prosecutors seized these records, why it is only now notifying The Post, and on what basis the Justice Department decided to forgo the presumption of advance notification under its own guidelines when the investigation apparently involves reporting over three years in the past.”