WASHINGTON – The New York Times Tuesday asked a court to unseal legal Department of Justice records that would reveal how prosecutors persuaded a court to conceal the secrecy of an order to confiscate the email records of four Times reporters and then stop the Times executives from speaking about the matter.
The filing came when Attorney General Merrick B. Garland scheduled a meeting Monday with leaders from three news organizations – The Times, The Washington Post, and CNN – to discuss concerns about prosecutors’ practices in leak investigations, including two on the matter familiar people.
In the past few weeks, the Biden Justice Department has disclosed the seizure of phone records for reporters from each of these Trump-era organizations. After the first two revelations, involving The Post and CNN, President Biden vowed not to let the Justice Department go on sourcing information from reporters during his tenure.
But last week it came to light that the department had also secretly seized Times reporters’ phone records – and waged a separate and ultimately unsuccessful battle to get their email records from Google, which is the email system the Times operates. The Trump Justice Department obtained an injunction against Google on January 5th. After Google refused to comply, Mr Biden’s Justice Department continued efforts until it was dropped last Wednesday.
In an added twist, in March the government allowed a handful of attorneys and Times executives to hear of the ruling and the litigation surrounding it. But it issued a gag order that prevented her from disclosing it to the public or to colleagues. Among other things, Dean Baquet, the editor-in-chief, was left in the dark until a judge overturned the gag order on Friday.
The Justice Department initially refused to comment on whether it would accept Mr Biden’s seemingly spontaneous vow from the previous month as an official guideline. But on Saturday the department announced that it was changing long-standing policies in both parties’ administrations to no longer allow prosecutors to “seize source information from members of the news media who do their jobs” in leak investigations.
Still, the Times attorneys claim that the public has a right to know more about the legal process of the now-concluded battle over the emails. Specifically, they ask what prosecutors said about the secrecy of the original order and the subsequent imposition of the gag order on the Times executives.
On January 5, when the judge first ordered Google to hand over the reporters’ email records, he wrote, “There is reason to believe that notification of the existence of this order will seriously jeopardize the ongoing investigation, including the one Possibility to give the targets an opportunity to destroy or manipulate evidence. “
But the file stated that the apparent leak investigation and its target were already publicly known and reported by both The Times and The Post. (The Trump Justice Department investigated whether James B. Comey Jr., the former FBI director, was the source of leaked classified information about Russian hackers in a 2017 article by the four reporters.)
“These orders pose an exceptional challenge to press freedom and undermine the ability of the press to report truthful information of vital public interest,” said the filing by the Times attorneys. “They appear to have been obtained in violation of Justice Department rules and practices. And the reason given in the rulings raises important questions about the files and the representations presented in court. “