Attorney General Merrick Garland on Monday reversed a long-standing Department of Justice (DOJ) policy by formally banning federal prosecutors from seizing the records of journalists in most leak investigations.
The policy change addresses the issue first brought up by Garland in June when he said the DOJ would stop the practice of seizing reporters’ records in leak investigations. The goal of the change is to resolve the issue of prosecutors trying to balance the government’s obligation to protect classified information and the media’s First Amendment rights.
“The Department of Justice will no longer use compulsory legal process for the purpose of obtaining information from or records of members of the news media acting within the scope of newsgathering activities,” said Garland in a memo sent out on Monday.
The DOJ was pressured to take action after a report revealed that Trump’s DOJ had obtained records belonging to journalists at The Washington Post, CNN, and The New York Times who received leaked classified information on the Russia investigation.
Trump’s first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, said in November 2017 that the DOJ was investigating 27 leaks of classified intelligence, which were advancing the Trump-Russia narrative, reported CNN Business.
“The records at issue relate to 2017 and the legal process to seek these records was approved in 2020,” Justice Department spokesman Anthony Coley said in a statement last month. “Department leadership will soon meet with reporters to hear their concerns about recent notices and further convey Attorney General (Merrick) Garland’s staunch support of and commitment to a free and independent press.”
According to the Associated Press, President Joe Biden said he would not allow the Justice Department to seize journalists’ phone records and emails, calling the past actions “wrong.” “I won’t let that happen,” he said.
Garland’s announcement was immediately praised by leaders in the media including Bruce Brown, the executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
“We welcome the Justice Department’s commitment to no longer seek source information from reporters in leak investigations. But serious unanswered questions remain about what happened in each of these cases,” said Brown in a press statement. “To ensure it does not happen again, we look forward to pursuing additional policy reforms with the Biden administration to further safeguard these essential rights.”
The DOJ has long been challenged by leak investigations and faced pushback from the media. The DOJ said the ban on gathering journalist information would not apply to foreign terrorists, ongoing legal cases, and “when the use of the compulsory legal process is necessary to prevent an imminent risk of death or serious bodily harm, including terrorist acts, kidnappings, [and] specified offenses against a minor. …”