June 11, 2021
President Joseph R. Biden
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20500
Sent via email
Dear President Biden,
The Committee to Protect Journalists, a non-governmental organization that defends global press freedom, is writing to express grave concern about the use of secret subpoenas by your predecessor’s Justice Department to obtain reporters’ communication records. We ask that your administration swiftly make public details around the subpoenas and create protections to prevent this kind of violation from setting a damaging precedent.
As Secretary of State Antony Blinken underscored in his remarks to mark World Press Freedom Day, it would be hypocritical of the United States to make a case for press freedom abroad, if the U.S. government is doing the opposite at home. The ability to promote democratic values around the world requires that the United States uphold press freedom domestically.
We are heartened by your Justice Department’s stated commitment to discontinue the use of secret subpoenas to obtain reporters’ records during leak investigations, as well as your public disavowal of obtaining journalists’ records. Attorney General Merrick Garland on June 9 told the Senate that his department will issue a memorandum setting out guidelines for journalists’ source protections.
However, the changes must go beyond the promise of a memorandum. Attorney General Garland’s assurances must be matched with actions, and the implementation of more permanent policy protections.
One of the first steps in this process is to publicly identify the individuals inside the Justice Department who knew about ongoing efforts to obtain New York Times reporters’ email records from Google, which operates the Times’ email platform, as well as who was involved in imposing a gag order on Times executives preventing them from notifying their colleagues of the subpoenas. The gag order, which the Times reported was in place since March 3, clearly goes against your administration’s recently stated commitment to transparency and should be investigated further to prevent this kind of opaque silencing.
Understanding why these subpoenas were issued—not only to the Times reporters, but also to reporters at CNN and The Washington Post—and why they were kept secret for so long is essential to preventing this clear breach of source protection from happening again.
Once this information is collected and released, the administration should then work with news media and press freedom organizations, such as the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, to review and revise Justice Department media guidelines, which were last updated in January 2015.
The secret surveillance of journalists is a direct threat to the ability of the press to work freely and safely, and puts reporters’ sources in jeopardy. As you and your administration have underscored, it is essential to restore a sense of trust in and respect for the media in the United States, both for the well-being of U.S. democracy and as an example around the world.
We look forward to pursuing policy reform with your administration to strengthen and safeguard essential press freedoms.
Committee to Protect Journalists
CC: Attorney General Merrick Garland