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First Amendement

Justice Department leaders to meet with reporters after more revelations of Trump DOJ surveilling journalists

The Justice Department in 2020 secretly obtained phone and email records from CNN Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr, CNN reported and the Justice Department confirmed Thursday night. The Justice Department's May 13 letter to Starr informing her it had obtained her 2017 records follows a May 3 letter to three Washington Post reporters with similar notifications.

Seeking court permission to covertly obtain a journalist's work and home records requires sign-off from the attorney general, under reforms enacted by former Attorney General Eric Holder in the wake of aggressive leak prosecutions by former President Barack Obama's administration. The attorney general for all but the last week of 2020 was William Barr.

"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. "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." None of the journalists were the target of the still-undisclosed investigations, the Justice Department said.

The three Post journalists, in the targeted period, had been reporting on the federal investigation of Russia's interference in the 2016 election and ties to then-President Donald Trump, while Starr was investigating the Trump administration's plans regarding Syria and North Korea and proposed changes to reporting combat deaths in Afghanistan, CNN says. The DOJ said it obtained information on whom Starr contacted and when from "phone numbers for Starr's Pentagon extension, the CNN Pentagon booth phone number, and her home and cellphones, as well as Starr's work and personal email accounts," CNN says.

CNN legal analyst Elie Honig, a former federal prosecutor, called the secret subpoenas "a monumental abuse of power," predicted "more of it will come out," and said Garland should reveal the extent of the surveilling of journalist "and fix it."

"This is a big story that just got bigger," said Bruce Brown, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. "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 news-gathering is more sweeping than we originally thought."

"The Trump Justice Department was not shy about cracking down on so-called leaks," The Washington Post notes. Trump himself frequently singled out the Post and CNN for verbal abuse.