Presidents come and presidents go, but regardless of which party holds the nation’s highest office the questionable practice of the Department of Justice secretly obtaining a court order to seize a reporter’s phone records goes on and on.
We recently learned that the DOJ, during the Trump administration, secretly obtained phone records of three Washington Post reporters in an effort to learn who they had been talking to. This occurred in 2020.
In 2017, the Trump Justice Department obtained the phone and email records of CNN reporter Barbara Starr. Starr was not informed until May of this year that prosecutors had obtained this information.
During the Obama administration, the Justice Department exhibited the same aggressiveness toward reporters. In 2013, they obtained phone records of Associated Press staff. Records from more than 20 telephones were targeted at the AP office along with reporters’ home and cellphone numbers.
The AP phone record subpoena appeared to be related to information leaked and later published that embarrassed the Obama administration. It disclosed that efforts were underway to foil a terrorist attack while officials were claiming they had no knowledge of a terrorist plot.
During the same time frame, the DOJ seized phone records and emails of James Rosen, who at that time was Fox News’ chief Washington correspondent. The DOJ didn’t just stop there. It also seized the phone records of his parents.
All of the aforementioned incidents are very concerning and have been widely criticized by media spokesmen.
The DOJ action “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.
CNN President Jeff Zucker noted that “CNN strongly condemns the secret collection of any aspect of a journalist’s correspondence which is clearly protected by the First Amendment.”
We agree with Brown and Zucker. Actions we have described discourage whistleblowers who have knowledge of governmental misconduct and have a chilling effect on those who gather and report the news.
A leak that angered then-President Donald Trump or one that embarrassed then-President Barack Obama doesn’t seem to rise to a sufficient level to warrant a court order for a fishing expedition.
We now know that during the FBI Russian investigation the FISA Court issued subpoenas to spy on individuals associated with the Trump administration based on faulty information. In addition, other pertinent information was withheld. It is a reminder how easily courts can be misled when prosecutors engage in highly questionable actions. It is imperative that judges reviewing requests for reporters’ communication records should view these requests with their eyes wide open.
That would include closely questioning those who bring these requests to determine if the government didn’t have other avenues for obtaining the information.
The free flow of information to we the people in a democratic society demands nothing less.