In Josh Gerstein’s report on DOJ’s collection of James Risen’s phone and business records, he quotes University of Minnesota law professor Jane Kirtley saying that the government doesn’t give reporters notice when it collects telephone or business records on them.
Kirtley also said journalists often aren’t notified when the government asks telecom companies, banks or other service providers for their records.
DOJ must inform reporters if their call records have been subpoenaed
That may be the case in practice. But DOJ policy actually requires that journalists receive notice if their phone records are subpoenaed.
(g) In requesting the Attorney General’s authorization for a subpoena for the telephone toll records of members of the news media, the following principles will apply: (1) There should be reasonable ground to believe that a crime has been committed and that the information sought is essential to the successful investigation of that crime. The subpoena should be as narrowly drawn as possible; it should be directed at relevant information regarding a limited subject matter and should cover a reasonably limited time period. In addition, prior to seeking the Attorney General’s authorization, the government should have pursued all reasonable alternative investigation steps as required by paragraph (b) of this section.
(2) When there have been negotiations with a member of the news media whose telephone toll records are to be subpoenaed, the member shall be given reasonable and timely notice of the determination of the Attorney General to authorize the subpoena and that the government intends to issue it.
(3) When the telephone toll records of a member of the news media have been subpoenaed without the notice provided for in paragraph (e)(2) of this section, notification of the subpoena shall be given the member of the news media as soon thereafter as it is determined that such notification will no longer pose a clear and substantial threat to the integrity of the investigation. In any event, such notification shall occur within 45 days of any return made pursuant to the subpoena, except that the responsible Assistant Attorney General may authorize delay of notification for no more than an additional 45 days.
(4) Any information obtained as a result of a subpoena issued for telephone toll records shall be closely held so as to prevent disclosure of the information to unauthorized persons or for improper purposes.
From that we should assume that DOJ got the phone records by subpoenaing Sterling’s records, not Risen’s. But if that’s the case, you’d think the government would have just told Risen that when his lawyer asked whether his records had been subpoenaed back in 2008.
Risen said the government never notified him that they were seeking his phone records. But he said he got an inkling in 2008 that investigators had collected some information about his calls.
“We heard from several people who had been forced to testify to the grand jury that prosecutors had shown them phone records between me and those people—not the content of calls but the records of calls,” he said. “As a result of what they told us, my lawyers filed a motion with the court as asking how the Justice Department got these phone records and whether or not they had gotten my phone records.”
“We wanted the court to help us decide whether they had abided by the attorney general’s guidelines,” Risen said. “We never got an answer from the court or the government.”
In other words, there may be no cause for suspicion, except for the suspicious funkiness on the government’s part.
DOJ has refused to inform at least one reporter his or her records were subpoenaed
Now, there is one case we know of where DOJ collected information on a reporter’s phone records and did not inform him or her. The DOJ Inspector General Report on Exigent Letters describes three cases in which reporters’ phone records were collected through the telecom’s onsite Communications Analysis Unit. Two of these were collected using exigent letters; in both, the editors (for stories published in both the NYT and WaPo) and the journalist (for an Ellen Nakashima story) were informed the reporters’ records had been collected.
In the third case, the records were collected with a grand jury subpoena. Here’s what we know about the collection:
- The investigative team included two federal prosecutors who appear to belong to a counterintelligence group at DOJ, an AUSA from the jurisdiction in which the grand jury was seated who was rubberstamping records for the investigation, the FBI case agent, and intelligence analysts.
- The FBI case agent asked the CAU agent about how to do a phone records subpoena for the leak investigation, and the CAU agent referred the case agent to the telecom analysts at CAU for help with the subpoena. Following a meeting with (I think) an AT&T analyst, the case agent asked that analyst for boilerplate language to make sure the subpoena was “as encompassing as possible.” It appears from the report (though this information is highly redacted) that the resultant subpoena may have asked for the community of interest of the suspected leaker’s numbers. That is, it appears the subpoena asked for a network analysis of all the people who had directly contacted the target.
- One of the two prosecutors used that boilerplate language to write up attachments to the subpoena; the rubberstamp AUSA never saw the attachments. This was the first subpoena the rubberstamp AUSA signed in the case.
- The prosecutor that generated the subpoena claims–with an undated document to back up that claim–that the case agent told him the subpoena would not collect phone records for the reporter that–they both knew at the time–had been in phone contact with the suspected leaker. The case agent, however, did not recall such a discussion and claims it was “very unlikely” such a conversation occurred. The implication of this seems to be that the case agent knew full well he’d be getting the reporter’s call data.
- In talking to a counterintelligence Special Agent, the prosecutor who generated the subpoena learned that such a subpoena could produce the records of reporters; he also learned there was a way to write the subpoena to avoid that from happening. Once he realized that, he had conversations with other DOJ lawyers and supervisors about what to do; they all agreed to seal the records. Though they sealed the records of the case agent and deleted them from his computer, they didn’t ask what CAU had done with the records, much less ask the CAU analyst to delete the records.
- When the IG learned about all this, they finally checked whether this information got loaded into the investigative database. The target’s records were entered into the FBI database; the IG did not find any reporters’ information uploaded, though much of the report’s discussion on this topic is redacted.
- DOJ’s Criminal Division informed the Court overseeing the grand jury of the subpoenas and the “corrective actions” taken.
After learning all this, the IG asked DOJ whether it should have notified the reporter in question per the policy cited above. Here’s what happened:
The Criminal Division and the OIG asked the Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) to opine on the question when the notification provision in the regulation would be triggered. Read more