The US Department of Justice has said it will no longer secretly obtain reporters’ records during investigations of leaks of classified information.
Last month, President Joe Biden called the policy, which has been criticised by news organisations and press freedom groups, “simply, simply wrong” and pledged not to continue allowing it.
Though Mr Biden’s comments in an interview were not immediately accompanied by any change in policy, statements from the White House and Justice Department on Saturday signalled an official reversal from an investigative tactic that has persisted for years.
Democratic and Republican administrations alike have used subpoenas and court orders to obtain journalists’ records in an effort to identify sources who have revealed classified information.
But the practice has received renewed scrutiny in the past month as Justice Department officials alerted reporters at three news organisations – The Washington Post, CNN and The New York Times – that their phone records had been obtained in the final year of the Trump administration.
The latest revelation came on Friday, when the Times reported the existence of a gag order that had barred the newspaper from revealing a secret court fight over efforts to obtain the email records of four reporters.
That tussle had begun during the Trump administration but had persisted under the Biden Justice Department, which ultimately moved to withdraw the gag order.
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White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement on Saturday that no one at the White House was aware of the gag order until Friday night, but that more broadly, “the issuing of subpoenas for the records of reporters in leak investigations is not consistent with the president’s policy direction to the department”.
In a separate statement, Justice Department spokesman Anthony Coley said that “in a change to its longstanding practice”, the department “will not seek compulsory legal process in leak investigations to obtain source information from members of the news media doing their jobs”.
He added: “The department strongly values a free press, protecting First Amendment values, and is committed to taking all appropriate steps to ensure the independence of journalists.”
In ruling out “compulsory legal process” for reporters in leak investigations, the department also appeared to say that it would not force journalists to reveal in court the identity of their sources.
Bruce D Brown, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said he welcomed the policy change but that serious unanswered questions remain about what happened in each of these cases.
The two newspapers whose reporters’ phone records had been secretly obtained also said more needed to be done.
“This is a welcome step to protecting the ability of the press to provide the public with essential information about what their government is doing,” New York Times publisher A G Sulzberger said in a statement.
“However, there is significantly more that needs to be done and we are still awaiting an explanation on why the Department of Justice moved so aggressively to seize journalists’ records.”
Washington Post executive editor Sally Buzbee said the newspaper was calling on the Biden administration and the Justice Department “to provide a full accounting of the chain of events in both administrations and to implement enduring protections to prevent any future recurrence”.
The Department of Justice statement did not say whether it would still conduct aggressive leak investigations without obtaining reporters’ records.
It also did not define who exactly would be counted as a member of the media for the purposes of the policy and how broadly the protection would apply.