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The Trump Justice Department secretly obtained the phone records of four New York Times reporters as part of a leak investigation, the newspaper reported Wednesday.
It is the third instance in the last month in which a news media organization has disclosed that federal authorities seized the records of its journalists in an effort to identify sources for national security stories published during President Donald Trump's administration.
President Joe Biden has said he would not allow the Justice Department to continue the practice of obtaining reporters' records, calling it “simply, simply wrong.”
Justice Department spokesman Anthony Coley said the department notified the newspaper on Wednesday that it had obtained phone records for the four reporters last year and that it had tried to obtain non-content email records as part of “a criminal investigation into the unauthorized disclosure of classified information.”
The newspaper said the records that were seized covered a nearly four-month period in 2017 and belonged to reporters Matt Apuzzo, Adam Goldman, Eric Lichtblau and Michael S. Schmidt. Lichtblau has since left the newspaper.
The Justice Department did not disclose which article it was investigating, according to the newspaper. But the period covered by the phone record seizure encompasses an April 2017 story from the four journalists that described the decision-making of then-FBI Director James Comey during the Hillary Clinton email investigation, and described a classified document obtained by Russian hackers.
The journalists were neither the subjects nor the targets of the investigation, Coley said.
“Forthcoming annual public reports from the Department covering 2019 and 2020 will indicate that members of the news media have now been notified in every instance in this period in which their records were sought or obtained in such circumstances,” Coley said.
Dean Baquet, the executive editor of The Times, said in a statement published by the newspaper that seizing reporters' phone records "profoundly undermines press freedom.
“It threatens to silence the sources we depend on to provide the public with essential information about what the government is doing,” Baquet said.
The Washington Post disclosed last month that the Justice Department had last year obtained phone records belonging to three of its journalists who covered the investigation into 2016 Russian election interference. CNN later revealed that the department, also last year, had seized phone records of its Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr.
After those disclosures, Biden told a reporter he would not allow the Justice Department to persist in obtaining phone records. That would mark a break from Democratic and Republican predecessors alike, who have seized reporter call logs in an effort to identify sources of classified information.
The Justice Department under former Attorney General Eric Holder announced revised guidelines for leak investigations, requiring additional levels of review before a journalist could be subpoenaed — though it did not end the practice.
Jeff Sessions, who served as President Donald Trump's first attorney general, announced in 2017 an aggressive government crackdown on leaks.