Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) on Monday unveiled a bill that aims to protect journalists’ data from government subpoenas, in the wake of the news that the Justice Department during the Trump administration worked to obtain records of lawmakers and journalists.
“The Trump Administration spied on reporters it suspected of no crimes in its hunt to identify their sources and prevent the American people from learning the truth about Trump’s lawlessness and corruption,” Wyden said in a statement in introducing the bill, called the Protect Reporters from Excessive State Suppression (PRESS) Act (pdf).
“President Biden and Attorney General Garland have pledged to end these surveillance abuses, but the new policies can be reversed by future administrations,” the Senate Democrat added.
It comes after news emerged, as first reported by The New York Times on June 10, that prosecutors in the DOJ under the Trump administration had issued subpoenas to Apple in 2017 and 2018 seeking data from people associated with the House Intelligence Committee, as part of a probe to find out who was behind leaks of classified information related to the Russia investigation and other national-security issues.
Last month, Apple reportedly notified at least 12 people that they were being investigated via the grand jury subpoenas the DOJ had issued. Among them were Trump critics Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), now the committee’s chair, and Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.), a committee member, as well as their aides and family members. According to the NY Times, the data Apple provided didn’t establish any ties between the California politicians and the leaks.
Lawmakers didn’t know they were being investigated until Apple informed them last month, after a gag order on the company secured by the DOJ had expired this year.
The federal government, unlike most states, does not have a version of a shield law for journalists and media organisations. The state laws do not apply to investigations by federal agencies, such as the justice department.
There are also currently no legal restrictions that prevent the government from secretly obtaining a reporters’ records directly from phone companies, email providers, and other third parties in order to identify their sources.
The bill defines a journalist as anyone who “gathers, prepares, collects, photographs, records, writes, edits, reports, or publishes news or information that concerns local, national, or international events or other matters of public interest for dissemination to the public.”
It would prohibit the federal government from compelling electronic storage service providers to hand over documents or information regarding a “covered journalist.” Reporters would also be given the opportunity to respond to demands for records from the federal government.
Wyden’s bill would protect journalists from court-ordered disclosures of information about their sources, with the exceptions of information necessary to prevent terrorism or identify a perpetrator of terrorism, or information that could prevent imminent violence or death.
“As the son of an investigative journalist, I know reporters are essential to holding the government accountable, and shedding sunlight on the uncomfortable truths those in power seek to conceal,” Wyden said in a statement. “There need to be clear rules protecting reporters from government surveillance written into black-letter law.”
He added: “My legislation creates strong protections for reporters, with common-sense exceptions for cases when the government truly needs information immediately.”
Mimi Nguyen Ly contributed to this report.