The Justice Department under President Donald Trump obtained a gag order that kept top CNN executives from disclosing the government’s pursuit of reporter Barbara Starr email and other records as part of an apparent leak investigation.
According to CNN, the effort started in July of last year and was only revealed until Wednesday, when a federal judge unsealed parts of the case. CNN’s general counsel David Vigilante went on air to explain that he was unable to reveal details of the case even to Starr herself. She and reporters from The Washington Post and The New York Times were informed last month that the government had seized their records without their knowledge.
Vigilante described a protracted legal battle that ultimately resulted in the DOJ agreeing to a much narrower disclosure of records, after the tens of thousands originally sought over a span of two months in 2017.
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It’s still not clear why the government was seeking the records, but the DOJ said last month that Starr was not a target of an investigation. During the time frame that the government sought the records, Starr, their Pentagon correspondent, had reported on North Korea, Syria and Afghanistan.
“We were completely deprived of our right to defend ourselves,” Vigilante said on CNN on Wednesday.
There has been concern that the Biden Justice Department continued to pursue the cases. After Starr received her letter, CNN’s chief White House correspondent Kaitlan Collins asked Biden about it, and he said that the practice was “simply, simply wrong.” The White House and the Justice Department announced over the weekend that they would end the practice of subpoenaing journalists’ phone and email records as they conducted leak investigations.
Vigilante said that representatives from the network, as well as the Times and Post, would meet on Monday with Attorney General Merrick Garland.
While it is not uncommon for media organizations to receive subpoenas for information in court cases, what was particularly unusual about this instance was the ability of the DOJ to obtain a secrecy order. That kept the circle of people at the network who knew about what was going on to Vigilante and other attorneys for the network, while CNN President Jeff Zucker was given limited details, the network reported.