Now former U.S. Attorney General William Barr as pictured speaking during a news conference in Washington, D.C., on December 21, 2020. Under Barr, the Justice Department made a decision to subpoena journalist phone records. (AFP/Michael Reynolds)

CPJ calls on Biden administration to commit to source protection in wake of Washington Post subpoena revelations

Washington, D.C., May 10, 2021 — The Committee to Protect Journalists today called on the Biden administration to make public why the Justice Department under former President Donald Trump secretly subpoenaed journalists’ phone records, and to commit to respecting journalist and source relationships. 

The Justice Department secretly obtained call records from April 15, 2017, to July 31, 2017, for the phone numbers of current Washington Post reporters Ellen Nakashima and Greg Miller and former Post reporter Adam Entous, The Post reported on May 7. The reporters were separately notified on May 3 in letters that did not specify when the material was obtained, according to the report. 

“Public interest journalism cannot work if the U.S. government is willing to disregard journalists’ right to source protection,” said CPJ Program Director Carlos Martinez de la Serna in New York. “The Biden administration must provide more information about why the Washington Post reporters’ call records were subpoenaed, and commit to upholding protections in place at the Justice Department to prevent this form of government overreach in the future.” 

An unnamed Justice Department spokesperson told The Post that the department’s decision to subpoena the records was made in 2020, when William Barr was attorney general. According to The Post, the material included records for Nakashima’s work, cell, and home phones, Entous’ cell phone, and Miller’s work and cell phones. 

Justice Department acting Deputy Director of Public Affairs Marc Raimondi wrote in an emailed statement to CPJ after publication, “The targets of these investigations are not the news media recipients but rather those with access to the national defense information who provided it to the media and thus failed to protect it as lawfully required.”

In a recent white paper to the Biden administration, CPJ called on the president to back guidelines that protect confidential sources, and to refrain from using the Espionage Act to prosecute journalists or whistleblowers. 

The Trump administration indicted at least eight government employees and contractors for leaking classified information to journalists, and also charged WikiLeaks creator Julian Assange with obtaining and publishing secret government materials, CPJ reported

In 2017 the Justice Department, then under Jeff Sessions, said that it planned to relax U.S. government guidelines to make it easier for investigators to subpoena journalists and their records, CPJ documented at the time

The Obama administration prosecuted 10 government employees and contractors for leaking classified information, including eight under the Espionage Act, as CPJ reported

The three Post reporters had written articles about alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election using classified intelligence intercepts, the paper reported. The letters to the reporters did not state the purpose of the subpoena, according to The Post. The phone records included information about who made calls to and from the specified numbers, as well as the length of calls, though not what was said during the conversations, The Post reported. 

Editor’s note: The fifth paragraph has been updated with a response from Justice Department acting Deputy Director of Public Affairs Marc Raimondi.