WASHINGTON – The Trump administration Justice Department secretly obtained the 2017 phone records of a CNN correspondent, the network said Thursday in revealing the existence of another apparent leak investigation aimed at identifying a journalist’s sources.
The revelation comes two weeks after The Washington Post disclosed that the Justice Department had last year seized phone records belonging to three of its journalists who covered the Russia investigation.
CNN said the Justice Department informed Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr in a May 13 letter that it had obtained phone and email records covering a two-month period between June 1 and July 31, 2017.
“CNN strongly condemns the secret collection of any aspect of a journalist’s correspondence, which is clearly protected by the First Amendment,” CNN President Jeff Zucker said in a statement published by the network. “We are asking for an immediate meeting with the Justice Department for an explanation.”
The Justice Department confirmed that the records were formally sought last year, though it did not reveal anything else about the investigation and what story might pertain to. CNN said that in the two-month period listed in the letter, Starr's reporting included stories on Syria and Afghanistan and coverage of U.S. military options in North Korea that were being offered to President Donald Trump.
“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. “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.”
The letter indicated that the government sought records of Starr's Pentagon phone extension, the CNN Pentagon booth phone number and her home and cellphone records. The government also said it had obtained “non-content information” from her emails, which would include information about the senders and recipients but not the actual content of the communications.
The Justice Department under former Attorney General Eric Holder announced revised guidelines for obtaining records from the news media during criminal leak investigations, removing language that news organizations said was ambiguous and requiring additional levels of review before a journalist could be subpoenaed.
The updated policy was a response to outrage among news organizations over Obama administration tactics seen as overly aggressive and hostile toward newsgathering.
Bruce Brown, the executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said Thursday that the phone record seizure amounted to a “big story that just got bigger.”
“That a journalist from another news organization had communications records seized by the Trump Justice Department suggests that the last administration’s efforts to intrude into reporter-source relationships and chill newsgathering is more sweeping than we originally thought,” Brown said.
He called for the Justice Department to explain exactly what happened and “how it plans to strengthen protections for the free flow of information to the public.”
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