Trump administration snooped for anonymous news sources

The front of the New York Times building in New York City. (Photo by samchills on Flickr / Creative Commons image)

Officials with the U.S. Department of Justice under the administration of former President Donald Trump issued subpoenas to various technology companies in an attempt to learn the real-world identities of anonymous sources used by news organizations.

Over the last few weeks, national news outlets — among them, CNN and the Washington Post — have been slowly revealing details of the Justice Department’s attempt to gain access to e-mail records and other data logs concerning their communications with individuals, some of whom are believed to have been used as sources for news reports on the functions of the Trump Administration.

Things came to a head on Saturday when the New York Times published a report revealing that a gag order had been issued by a federal judge that prohibited executives at the newspaper from revealing the existence of litigation between the outlet and federal officials concerning an attempt to obtain the e-mail logs of four employed reporters.

The gag order was lifted on Friday, the Times said, which allowed executives at the newspaper to freely discuss that issue and others.

On Saturday, officials at the White House said they were unaware of attempts by the Justice Department to obtain the e-mail logs. A spokesperson for the administration of President Joe Biden said the Justice Department would amend its policy to bar investigators from seizing phone and e-mail records of reporters in an attempt to reveal anonymous sources.

Less than one month ago, Biden himself said he would not allow prosecutors and other officials at the Justice Department to seize material related to journalistic endeavors.

“It’s simply, simply wrong. I will not let that happen,” Biden said at a press conference on May 24.

The Trump administration was not the first to go after reporters and journalistic material in an effort to prosecute leakers. The Obama administration was equally criticized for threatening to prosecute reporters who refused to give up the identities of their sources, and officials drew scrutiny after the Associated Press learned that Justice Department investigators had secretly obtained their phone records in a leak investigation.

But the antagonism between former President Trump and the news media put his administration’s investigation of reporters on a different level, with some speculating that the probes were likely politically motivated.

“The Justice Department relentlessly pursued the identity of sources for coverage that was clearly in the public interest in the final 15 days of the Trump administration,” Dean Baquet, the executive editor of the New York Times, said in a statement. “And the Biden administration continued to pursue it. As I said before, it profoundly undermines press freedom.”

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