Attorney General Merrick Garland announced Wednesday that the Justice Department had formally introduced regulations barring department employees from secretly searching reporters’ records except in limited circumstances.
The new regulations only allow prosecutors to subpoena records in certain circumstances, including if the information they are seeking is essential to prevent a serious crime, if the journalist himself is the target of an investigation, if the records already contain public information, or if the journalist. agrees to release their records.
“These regulations recognize the critical role a free and independent press plays in our democracy,” Garland said Wednesday. “Since freedom of the press requires members of the news media to be free to investigate and report the news, the new regulations are intended to provide members of the news media with greater protection against certain law enforcement tools and actions that may unreasonably impede news gathering.”
Garland said he hopes the regulations will prevent future administrations from resuming the practice of targeting reporters.
The DOJ first adopted its new policy in July 2021, prohibiting the use of subpoenas, warrants, court orders and other coercive legal processes to obtain information from reporters when acting in the scope of their newsgathering duties.
The new guidelines come weeks after it was revealed that the Trump Justice Department had intercepted the records of reporters at several news organizations, including CNN, The Washington Post and the New York Times. The Trump administration has repeatedly used the Justice Department to secretly obtain communications from reporters or reveal the identities of critics of former President Donald Trump’s allies.
Inside CNN, the Trump administration sought and obtained the 2017 phone and email records of Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr. Biden’s Justice Department notified Starr last May that prosecutors had obtained two months of records from June 1, 2017, to July 30, 2017.
Under pre-DOJ regulations, investigators could secretly obtain reporters’ records through a court order without the reporters’ knowledge. If the subpoenas were related to news gathering activities, the attorney general had to authorize them. Investigators can keep subpoenas confidential when there was no threat to the investigation or national security, or for more than 90 days after the government received the information requested in the subpoena.
After news organizations reported the intercepts in the summer of 2021, President Joe Biden vowed to end the practice.