The Justice Department secretly obtained the phone records of three Washington Post reporters who wrote about the federal investigation into ties between Russia and former President Donald Trump's 2016 campaign, the newspaper said on May 7.
The action appears to have been aimed at identifying the reporters’ sources for stories published in 2017 during the early months of Trump’s administration as federal investigators scrutinized whether Trump’s 2016 campaign had coordinated with Russia to sway the election.
The newspaper said the three reporters received notice that their phone records had been seized in letters dated May 3.
The Post said the Justice Department did not specify the purpose of the subpoena to obtain the records or identify any articles at issue, but the newspaper said the period in question was April 15, 2017, to July 31, 2017.
During that time The Washington Post published a story about classified U.S. intelligence intercepts indicating that in 2016 Jeff Sessions, who would later become Trump’s attorney general, had discussed campaign issues with Russia's then-ambassador, Sergei Kislyak.
The phone records include who called whom, when calls were made, and how long calls lasted, but do not include what was said in the calls.
The letters sent to the reporters do not say when the Justice Department approved the decision to subpoena their records, but a department spokesman said it happened in 2020 before the end of the Trump administration.
Cameron Barr, The Washington Post's acting executive editor, demanded that the Justice Department say why it seized the data.
"We are deeply troubled by this use of government power to seek access to the communications of journalists,” Barr 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.”
Justice Department guidelines for leak investigations mandate that such actions are allowed only when other avenues for obtaining the information have been exhausted, and that the affected reporters must be notified unless it's determined that it would interfere with national security.
“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 e-mail records from media members as part of a criminal investigation into the unauthorized disclosure of classified information,” department spokesman Marc Raimondi said in a statement quoted by the Post.
Raimondi said the targets of such investigations are not the reporters but “those with access to the national defense information who provided it to the media and thus failed to protect it as lawfully required.”
The Justice Department also said it had received a court order to get e-mail records from the reporters but did not obtain them. The e-mail records sought would have indicated who e-mailed whom and when but would not have included the contents of the e-mails.