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Garland: Justice Dept. will strengthen policies for seizing data of lawmakers, journalists

U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland will meet with news executives Monday regarding Trump administration seizing communication records from them in leak probe.  Photo by Tom Brenner/UPI
U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland will meet with news executives Monday regarding Trump administration seizing communication records from them in leak probe.  Photo by Tom Brenner/UPI | License Photo

June 14 (UPI) -- Attorney General Merrick Garland said Monday the Justice Department will strengthen its policies for obtaining records of congressmen and journalists after it was reported that it had seized records during leak investigations under the Trump administration.

In a statement Monday morning, Garland said he instructed Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco to review, evaluate and strengthen existing policies and procedures for obtaining records of the legislative branch.

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Garland reiterated in the statement his remarks in his confirmation hearing that "political or other improper considerations must play no role in any investigative or prosecutorial decisions."

"These principles that have long been held as sacrosanct by the DOJ career workforce will be vigorously guarded on my watch, and any failure to live up to them will be met with strict accountability," his statement continued.

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"There are important questions that must be resolved in connection with an effort by the department to obtain records related to members of Congress and congressional staff," he said. "Consistent with our commitment to the rule of law, we must ensure that full weight is accorded to separation-of-powers concerns moving forward."

In the afternoon, Garland and several other Justice Department officials met with executives from CNN, The New York Times and The Washington Post to discuss new policies and regulations on obtaining reporters' information as it will no longer use subpoenas to name those leaking information.

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The Justice Department's effort on Monday comes after it was recently reported that former President Donald Trump's Justice Department had seized communication data from journalists at the three outlets in the hunt for sources in leak investigations.

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Among the attempts, Trump's DOJ sought to obtain 2017 phone records, and in some cases email records, including communications from Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr, CNN Business reported.

In a readout of the meeting from the Justice Department disseminated by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, whose executive director Bruce Brown was in attendance, the department said the group had a "productive conversation" regarding President Joe Biden's plan for implementing new rules on obtaining reporters' source information.

"The attorney general and the media representatives agreed on the need for strong, durable rules," the department said, stating that in the coming weeks Garland will develop a memo detailing the new policy as it will no longer use compulsory processes to gain access to reporters' information.

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"The attorney general committed to working with members of the news media to codify the memo setting out these new rules into regulation," the department said.

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The discussions over new regulations follow Biden last month telling CNN he would not allow his Justice Department to similarly seize communication records from reporters, calling it "simply, simply wrong."

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters days later that Biden "won't allow the abuse of power to intimidate journalists" and said he was "alarmed by the reports of numerous abuses of power" by the Trump administration.

Garland reiterated last week the Justice Department's commitment to refrain from seizing records from reporters in leak investigations during testimony before Congress.

In that testimony, Garland said he is creating a policy that will be announced in a memo in the coming weeks that will "distinguish between reporters doing their jobs and reporters committing crimes" in stories involving leaked documents.

CNN Washington Bureau Chief Sam Feist, who attended the meeting, told CNN's Sunday broadcast of Reliable Sources that the Biden administration's pledge not to do the same thing was not enough to address the problem.

"What we're asking the attorney general tomorrow is to try to bind future administrations," Feist said. "Don't just send a memo. Change policy."

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Feist added that it was not an accident that Trump's DOJ targeted the three news media outlets.

"These are the organizations that were at the top of [Trump's] list of enemies of the American people," Feist said. "Whether Merrick Garland knows the details of how that came about, we don't know, but we're certainly going to ask."

Feist also noted that the meeting took place one day after the 50th anniversary of the Times' publication of the Pentagon Papers in 1971.

"Our goal is to make sure that the Pentagon Papers and other stories of extraordinary public interest could be published in the future," Feist said. "It is to protect the freedom of the press now and in the future."

Following the meeting Monday, Times newsroom lawyer, David McCraw, who received gag orders in related legal fights for reporters' email data that spilled over into the Biden administration, said they also presented their case to the department as to why they need accountability for what happened, The Times reported.

"We also pushed the idea that these changes, that the president and the attorney general have spoken of, become institutionalized," he said. "We were very encouraged by what we heard."

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Fred Ryan, the publisher of The Washington Post, said in a statement to his paper that while he was encouraged by Garland's commitment to the first amendment right to free speech, the department must ensure rules be "durable and binding" to prevent future administrations from committing similar transgressions.

"It is also essential that there be a full and complete public accounting of all the actions taken against our news organizations, including the secret subpoenas and gag orders, and an explanation as to what has been done with the information that was seized," he said.

It was also revealed last week that the Trump administration's Justice Department seized data on top Democrat adversaries Reps. Eric Swalwell and Adam Schiff.

The Justice Department's Inspector General opened an investigation Friday into what led federal prosecutors under the Trump administration to take the House Democrats' and reporters' data.

DOJ national security chief John Demers, who oversaw Trump administration investigations that targeted Democratic lawmakers, is leaving his post within two weeks amid the probe, CNBC reported Monday.

A spokesman for Demers told CNBC he originally was expected to leave when Biden was sworn into office, but stayed several months past that upon request from the department's current leadership.

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Demers has told superiors for months he planned to leave when his children's summer break began, the spokesperson added.

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