“Going forward, consistent with the President’s direction, this Department of Justice — in a change to its longstanding practice — will not seek compulsory legal process in leak investigations to obtain source information from members of the news media doing their jobs,” Anthony Coley, the department’s director of public affairs, said in a statement.
A number of top Times executives had been informed of the effort by the Biden administration earlier this year to obtain its reporters’ emails but were bound by a gag order — preventing them from sharing the information with the newsroom and the paper’s executive editor, attorney David McCraw said, according to the Times.
McCraw on Friday shared that the Justice Department had attempted to seize email logs of the four reporters — Matt Apuzzo, Adam Goldman, Eric Lichtblau and Michael Schmidt — from Google, which manages the Times’ email system.
In a statement Saturday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said that “no one at the White House was aware of the gag order until Friday night” due to the “independence of the Justice Department in specific criminal cases.”
“While the White House does not intervene in criminal investigations, the issuing of subpoenas for the records of reporters in leak investigations is not consistent with the President’s policy direction to the Department, and the Department of Justice has reconfirmed it will not be used moving forward,” Psaki added.
While the department under Attorney General Merrick Garland has committed to ending the practice, formal guidelines at the department have not changed, meaning the practice could be reinstated under another administration.
On January 5, prosecutors with the US attorney’s office in Washington obtained a sealed court order requiring Google to secretly turn over the email log records for the four reporters. Google, however, resisted and demanded that the Times be notified of the government’s attempts to seize records, the Times reported.
According to the Times, the Justice Department continued pursuing the request for email logs after the Biden administration took over.
The prosecutors in early March asked a judge to allow informing McCraw of the effort, but the notification arrived with a nondisclosure order barring him from speaking to others about the matter, McCraw recounted to the Times. He later negotiated so he could discuss it with the Times’ general counsel, outside lawyers and two executives, the Times reported.
McCraw said the Justice Department informed him on Wednesday that it would ask the court to nullify the order to Google. And on Friday, a federal court lifted the gag order, freeing him to speak publicly about the legal battle, McCraw told the newspaper.
The Justice Department has not said which government leak to the media it was investigating. But the Times said the timing of the seized records and the reporters involved in the investigation suggest that the leak probe involved an April 22, 2017, Times report about former FBI Director James Comey’s handling of different investigations during the 2016 election.
Prosecutors discussed throughout last year whether to close the leak investigation into Comey, two people familiar with the case told the Times.
But FBI and career prosecutors wanted to keep the investigation into the media leak open and so obtained the January sealed court order to compel Google to turn over the reporters’ email data, the Times reported.
Dean Baquet, the executive editor of The Times, criticized both the Trump and Biden administrations for targeting the Times reporters.
“Clearly, Google did the right thing, but it should never have come to this,” Baquet said in a statement to the Times. “The Justice Department relentlessly pursued the identity of sources for coverage that was clearly in the public interest in the final 15 days of the Trump administration. And the Biden administration continued to pursue it. As I said before, it profoundly undermines press freedom.”
The Times declined to provide additional comment to CNN.
Asked earlier Saturday to comment on the Times report, Coley told CNN that “on multiple occasions in recent months, DOJ moved to postpone enforcement of the … order and voluntarily moved to withdraw the order before any records were produced.”
A Google spokeswoman told the Times that it does not comment on specific cases, but that the company was “firmly committed to protecting our customers’ data and we have a long history of pushing to notify our customers about any legal requests.”
Coley, in announcing an end to the practice, said Saturday that the Justice Department “has now completed a review to determine all instances” in which the department had “pending compulsory requests from reporters in leak investigations.”
“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,” he added.
This story has been updated with additional details.
CNN’s Evan Perez, Brian Stelter, Paul LeBlanc, Jeremy Herb and Jessica Schneider contributed to this report.