The Trump administration’s Justice Department secretly accessed the phone records of four New York Times reporters for nearly four months of 2017 as part of an information leak investigation. The revelation was made on Wednesday (2) by the Biden administration.
It was the latest in a series of uncovered cases in which the Trump administration gained secret access to journalists’ communications records in an effort to uncover their sources. Last month, the Biden administration’s Justice Department brought up spying on the phone records of journalists working for the Washington Post and the phone and email records of a CNN reporter, done under the Trump administration.
Dean Baquet, the executive editor of the NYT, condemned the Trump administration’s action.
“Taking journalists’ phone records profoundly subverts press freedom,” it said in a statement. “It threatens to silence the sources we depend on to provide the public with essential information about what the government is doing.”
Last month, when the cases of taking communications records involving journalists from the Washington Post and CNN came to light, President Joe Biden said he will not let the Justice Department under his administration take this step, which he called “simply wrong. ”.
Referring to that statement, Baquet added: “President Biden said that this kind of interference with the free press will not be tolerated under his administration. We hope that the Department of Justice will explain why this action was taken and what steps are being taken to ensure that it does not happen again.”
A Justice Department spokesman, Anthony Coley, said legal authorities obtained the records in 2020 and that “members of the press have now been notified of every instance” of the 2019-2020 leak investigations the department sought access your records.
The Department informed the NYT that agents seized phone records for the period January 14 to April 30, 2017 from four reporters at the newspaper: Matt Apuzzo, Adam Goldman, Eric Lichtblau, and Michael S. Schmidt. The government also obtained a court order to seize the records of its emails (not the content of the messages), but says it has not accessed the records.
The Justice Department did not say which report was being investigated. But the names of the reporters and the dates involved suggest that the leak investigation was related to information cited in an April 22, 2017, text, signed by the four journalists, about then FBI Director James Comey’s treatment of investigations. politically charged during the 2016 presidential election.
Discussing Comey’s unorthodox decision to announce in July 2016 that the FBI was recommending that Hillary Clinton not be criminally charged with using a private e-mail server to handle government issues while she was secretary of state, the report cited a document obtained from Russia by hackers working for Dutch intelligence authorities. The document, whose existence was classified, would have played a key role in Comey’s decision on the Hillary Clinton case.
The document was described as a memo or email written by a Democratic agent who had expressed confidence that the Attorney General at the time, Loretta Lynch, would not let the investigation into Hillary go too far. Russian hackers had been able to access the document, but, intelligence officials concluded, it was apparently not part of the documents Russia sent to WikiLeaks.
Comey would have feared that if the decision not to criminally prosecute Hillary came from Lynch and then Russia made the document public, the text would be used to sow doubts about the independence of the investigation and the legitimacy of its outcome.
In January 2020 the NYT reported that Trump-era agents investigated whether Comey was the source of the unauthorized disclosure made in this 2017 article.
Comey had been put under a magnifying glass since 2017, after Trump fired him as FBI director. After his resignation, Comey engineered — through his friend Daniel Richman, a law professor at Columbia University — the disclosure to the NYT of accounts of several of his conversations with the president concerning the investigation into Russia.
According to three people informed about this Comey investigation, she was eventually codenamed Arctic Haze (Arctic Mist). Her focus would have evolved over time; after starting to look into whether they could criminally charge Comey for leaking his conversations with Trump, investigators would have gone on to see if he had anything to do with revealing the document’s existence.
As part of that effort, the FBI also reportedly subpoenaed Google in 2020, seeking information regarding any emails exchanged between Daniel Richman and the New York Times.
But as of November 2020, some prosecutors concluded that the FBI had found no evidence to substantiate any criminal charges against Comey. They discussed the possibility of ending the investigation.
Earlier this year, prosecutors were told the FBI doesn’t want to close the case — in part because its agents still want to interrogate Comey. Interviewing the subject of an investigation is often seen as a final step taken before either closing the matter or filing an indictment.
Last month the FBI asked Comey’s attorney if he would be willing to be interviewed—Comey would have turned down the request.
From the middle of the George W. Bush administration through the administrations of Barack Obama and Donald Trump, the Department of Justice has been investigating criminal leaks more aggressively.
Eric Lichtblau — who no longer works for the NYT — came to the attention of investigators earlier in this period because he co-wrote a 2005 NYT article revealing Bush’s warrantless surveillance program secretly authorized by Bush after the Sept. 11 attacks 2001. The Bush administration created a special task force to hunt down the sources for this article, and its new approach ended up being adopted in unrelated cases during the Obama administration as well.
In 2013, Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman —who at the time worked for the Associated Press news agency and had leaked the scoop on a bombing plotted by an al Qaeda affiliate in Yemen—were notified that the Justice Department of the era Obama had secretly requested access to two months of his phone records.
It also emerged in the same month that, in a leak investigation into a Fox News article about the North Korean nuclear program, the Obama-era Justice Department had used a search warrant to access the emails of a Fox News reporter — and had characterized the reporter as a criminal conspirator.
The revelations sparked outrage among politicians of both parties, and Obama instructed then Attorney General Eric Holder to review the rules on criminal investigations affecting the news media.
Holder tightened the rules, reinforcing the preference for notifying a news organization in advance of a planned court order so that it can negotiate or fight the scope of the investigation in court. After the changes, the incidence of new cases of leakage significantly decreased in Obama’s second term.
But the practice resurfaced under Trump, who used to label the press as “the people’s enemy.”
In August 2017 Attorney General Jeff Sessions said the number of leak investigations had tripled. And it’s now clear that under his successor, William Barr, the Department of Justice has further escalated its aggressive approach to investigating leaks.