The first order was requested under the Trump administration, but aspects of the litigation continued in the Biden administration, according to the Times.
Justice Department spokesman Anthony Coley said the staff appointed by Biden tried to put efforts on hold before giving up.
“Over the past few months, the DOJ has tried several times to postpone the enforcement of the … warrant and voluntarily withdraw the warrant before any records were presented,” Coley said in a statement. “The ministry attaches great importance to a free and independent press and is committed to upholding the First Amendment.”
Coley noted that the arrangement was aimed at finding out who and when reporters communicated, but not according to the content of the news.
The Times said the government’s investigation appears to be centered on former FBI director James Comey an April 2017 article in the Times bylined by the four journalists whose emails were searched: Matt Apuzzo, Adam Goldman, Eric Lichtblau, and Michael S. Schmidt. The story mentioned a memo that a Democratic agent, Amanda Renteria, wrote during the 2016 campaign predicting that Attorney General Loretta Lynch would not allow an investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails that would lead to indictment.
According to press reports, the memo or a summary email was obtained from the Russian government during a hacking operation.
Comey has indicated that concerns about the possible public disclosure of such information contributed to his decision to handle the conclusion of the Clinton email investigation in a highly unusual way that sidelined – and angered – Lynch and other senior law enforcement officials.
The Times editor-in-chief Dean Baquet praised Google for defying the original order and for fighting to get the company looped into the Times in response to requests for reporters’ email metadata.
“Google clearly did the right thing, but that should never have happened,” said Baquet. “For the past 15 days of the Trump administration, the Justice Department relentlessly tracked the identity of sources for reporting that was clearly in the public interest. And the Biden government continued to pursue them. As I said, it deeply undermines the freedom of the press. “
A Times attorney, David McCraw, said efforts to gag the Times staff as part of a leak investigation were unprecedented.
The additional details of the efforts to obtain the Times reporters’ email data came after a series of notifications of phone recordings confiscated by journalists from The Times and two other media outlets: CNN and the Washington Post. E-mails were also searched in these leak probes but apparently never received.
President Joe Biden reacted angrily to early reports that investigators were attempting to comb through details of journalists’ phone and email traffic and vowed that similar tactics were not used in his administration.
“Absolutely, positively, it’s wrong. It’s just, just wrong, ”Biden told reporters at the White House last month. “I won’t allow that.”
Justice Department officials have not said whether they plan to change the longstanding DOJ regulations, revised during the Obama administration, which allow such searches in limited circumstances after other investigative opportunities have been exhausted. Some former officials have said it would be unwise to rule out the search for journalists’ records entirely as it would be impossible to prosecute in some cases where confidential national security information is leaked.
Coley said officials plan to meet with journalists and First Amendment attorneys to hear suggestions about the process. He said earlier this week that a disclosure to the Times about the receipt of their reporters’ phone records had completed the required notifications of searches from the Trump era.