Garland meets news executives over leak probe tactics
News media advocates seek to make “durable” President Joe Biden’s pledge to stop subpoenaing reporters’ email and phone records.
Attorney General Merrick Garland held a closed-door meeting on Monday with news media representatives who’ve expressed outrage about Justice Department leak investigations that used subpoenas aimed at reporters’ phone and email records.
Media executives spent about 90 minutes in dialogue with Garland and his top aides and advisers. The aim was to get more details made public about the investigations and court submissions that led to efforts under the Trump administration to seize records related to journalists from The New York Times, The Washington Post and CNN.
Despite outcry from the news media about the prosecutors’ tactics, the meeting’s atmosphere was positive because of unprecedented commitments from President Joe Biden and Garland to halt the practice of pursuing leaks by digging into journalists’ phone or email contacts, according to an attendee who served as a spokesperson for the participants.
“We are very encouraged by what we just heard inside the meeting,” said Bruce Brown, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. “These news organizations can’t effectively do their job… unless they can protect confidential sources.”
Brown said one tactic the group emphatically denounced was gag orders that prevented lawyers for or at some of the news organizations from telling reporters and most executives about the subpoenas.
“We communicated in very blunt terms to DOJ leadership what an existential crisis that was for these organizations,” Brown added as he addressed reporters outside Justice Department headquarters following the session. “It’s essential that the department understand fully what that experience meant for these news organizations.”
Garland asked last week for an inspector general investigation into the probes. Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz has said he’s beginning such a review, but those inquiries often take a year or more.
One immediate request from the media group was that the department move to lay bare the details of the investigations that led to the subpoenas aimed at the Post, Times and CNN reporters. At least one news outlet has already asked a court to release some of that information.
Citing the “off the record” ground rules of the session, Brown declined to say whether the Justice Department committed to making that information public or even to agreeing not to resist such requests in court.
“It was essential to us that they understood the importance of public accountability on what exactly transpired,” he said. “Trying to get there before an IG report may be out to the public is something that we’re all happy to stay on top of.”
A reporter asked the news executives flanking Brown why they agreed to an off-the-record meeting with the Justice Department on the issue, but none stepped forward to answer. Brown said similar ground rules were agreed to for such dialogues during past administrations.
Following the meeting, the Justice Department issued a brief statement that emphasized no reporter was a subject or target of the recent probes and reiterated Garland’s prior announcement.
“As previously announced, the department will no longer use compulsory process to obtain reporters’ source information when they are doing their jobs,” the statement said.
“The group had a productive conversation about the need for new rules implementing the policy change,” the announcement added. “During the discussion the department made clear that reporters were never the subject or the target of the recent investigations. The Attorney General and the media representatives agreed on the need for strong, durable rules.”
Brown and other free press advocates have said the episode underscores the need for federal legislation to shield reporters from being forced to divulge their sources. He said on Monday that even if Biden and Garland abide by their pledge not to target journalists’ emails or phone records, there is no assurance that a future administration will maintain that commitment.
“We need to find a way to take that policy and make it durable,” Brown said.
The Justice Department statement did not address the possibility of legislation, but pledged to consult with media representatives on revisions to department regulations that currently allow for such subpoenas under specific conditions.
Among the media representatives on hand were New York Times Chair and Publisher A.G. Sulzberger, Washington Post Publisher and CEO Fred Ryan, Washington Post Executive Editor Sally Buzbee and CNN Washington Bureau Chief Sam Feist.
The Justice Department’s roster of attendees included Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco and former National Security Division chief John Carlin, who serves as her top aide. Notably missing from the list was current Assistant Attorney General for National Security John Demers.
Demers, a holdover from the Trump administration, is expected to leave his post at the end of this month. Biden has nominated Matt Olsen, a veteran national security lawyer, to replace him.
Josh Gerstein is a member of the steering committee of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.