Journalists and civil rights groups were outraged this week after The Washington Post revealed that, while Donald Trump was president, the Department of Justice obtained the phone records of its journalists from their time covering allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 election.
“We are deeply troubled by this use of government power to seek access to the communications of journalists,” Cameron Barr, thePost’s acting executive director, said in a statement. “The Department of Justice should immediately make clear its reasons for this intrusion into the activities of reporters doing their jobs, an activity protected under the First Amendment.”
Free press advocates reacted with similar dismay.
“The Justice Department shouldn’t go spying on journalists at the whims of an administration,” the American Civil Liberties Union said in a statement on Friday on Twitter. “This should never have happened. When the government spies on journalists and their sources, it jeopardizes freedom of the press.”
“These are all things journalists should ASSUME the government does,” national security reporter Jeremy Scahill of The Intercept added, noting that the Biden administration has defended their predecessor’s seizures and the Obama administration was similarly aggressive towards the press. “Obama’s admin also spied on journalists and used the Espionage Act repeatedly against whistleblowers. Obama’s DNI Clapper lied to Congress about surveillance and his CIA spied on the Senate torture investigators.”
The Justice Department defended its use of the phone data, which captured phone numbers and call durations during the target period, as a “rare” step done with authority, whose real target was leakers and not the press themselves.
“While rare, the Department follows the established procedures within its media guidelines policy when seeking legal process to obtain telephone toll records and non-content email records from media members as part of a criminal investigation into unauthorized disclosure of classified information,” Marc Raimondi, a spokesman for the Justice Department, told the Post. “The targets of these investigations are not the news media recipients but rather those with access to the national defense information who provided it to the media and thus failed to protect it as lawfully required.”
Though it wasn’t clear what specifically provoked the searches through the records, Post reporters broke major stories about Trump allies like Jeff Sessions meeting with the Russian ambassador to discuss the Trump campaign, as well as the Obama administration’s efforts to investigate Russian interference.
The Obama administration, for its part used the 1917 Espionage Act more often than all other administrations combined to prosecute leakers.