WASHINGTON — The Justice Department confirmed Friday that it sought the phone records of three Washington Post reporters for calls they made during three months in 2017 while reporting on Russia’s role in the 2016 presidential election.
According to the Post, which was first to report the news, Post reporters Ellen Nakashima and Greg Miller, along with Adam Entous, who no longer works for the paper, were notified in letters dated May 3 that the government sought court orders to access information on calls between April 15, 2017, and July 31, 2017.
The paper said toward the end of that time period, the three wrote a story about classified U.S. intelligence intercepts indicating then-Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., talked about the Trump campaign in 2016 with Russia’s ambassador to the U.S., Sergey Kislyak.
The subpoenas sought records that would show who the reporters called and how long their conversations lasted but not what was discussed. The letters said the subpoenas covered Nakashima’s work, cell and home phones; Miller’s work and cell phones; and Entous’ cell phone, the Post said.
Justice Department spokesman Marc Raimondi confirmed the content of the letters in a statement.
"While rare, the Department follows the established procedures within its media guidelines policy when seeking legal process to obtain telephone toll records and non-content email records from media members as part of a criminal investigation into the unauthorized disclosure of classified information," the statement said. "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."
He said seeking media records is rare “and only done after all reasonable attempts have been made to obtain the information from alternative sources.”
Justice Department policies require the approval of the attorney general before seeking subpoenas for such phone and e-mail records. A department spokesman said the records of the Post reporters were sought in 2020, when William Barr was still serving as then-President Donald Trump's attorney general. Barr declined to comment to the Post.
Government officials have said they seek such information hoping to identify sources who leak classified information, but subpoenaing the phone records of journalists is rare and controversial.
The Post’s acting editor, Cameron Barr, criticized the move in a statement: “We are deeply troubled by this use of government power to seek access to the communications of journalists. The Department of Justice should immediately make clear its reasons for this intrusion into the activities of reporters doing their jobs, an activity protected under the First Amendment.”
The Post reported that the letters revealed that Justice Department lawyers also got court approval to seek e-mail addresses accessed by the reporters, but did not obtain those records.
In 2013, during the Obama administration, then-Attorney General Eric Holder met with news organizations seeking changes in the longstanding guidelines for seeking news media information after disclosures that the Justice Department seized records for more than 20 phone numbers used by Associated Press reporters and sought a court order to get e-mails by a Fox News reporter.
But the Justice Department has maintained that it would seek journalist records as a last resort.