WASHINGTON — The Justice Department said Saturday that it no longer will secretly obtain reporters’ records during leak investigations, a policy shift that abandons a practice decried by news organizations and press freedom groups.
The reversal follows a pledge last month by President Joe Biden, who had said it was “simply, simply wrong” to seize journalists’ records and that his Justice Department would halt the practice.
The tactic of using subpoenas and court orders to obtain journalists’ records has been used by Democratic and Republican administrations seeking to identify sources of classified information. But the practice had received renewed scrutiny over the past month as Justice Department officials had alerted reporters at three different news organizations — The Washington Post, CNN and The New York Times — that their phone records had been obtained during the Trump administration.
The latest revelation came Friday night when the Times reported the existence of a gag order that barred the newspaper from revealing a secret court fight over efforts to obtain the email records of four reporters. That tussle had begun during the Trump administration but had persisted under the Biden Justice Department, which ultimately moved to withdraw the gag order.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Saturday that no one at the White House was aware of the gag order until Friday night, but that more broadly, “the issuing of subpoenas for the records of reporters in leak investigations is not consistent with the President’s policy direction to the Department.”
In a separate statement, Justice Department spokesman Anthony Coley said that “in a change to its longstanding practice,” the department “will not seek compulsory legal process in leak investigations to obtain source information from members of the news media doing their jobs.”
He added: “The department strongly values a free press, protecting First Amendment values, and is committed to taking all appropriate steps to ensure the independence of journalists.”
The statement did not say whether the Justice Department would still conduct aggressive leak investigations without obtaining reporters’ records. It also did not define who exactly would be counted as a member of the media for the purposes of the policy and how broadly the protection would apply.
Even so, it marked a startling turnabout concerning a practice that has persisted across multiple presidential administrations.