The manhunt — which began in July 2020 under then-Attorney General William Barr with a two-month request for email records of Pentagon reporter Barbara Starr at CNN — continued even after a federal judge told the Department of Justice of its argument for access to Starr’s internal emails. speculative” and “not related to any facts”.
The Trump administration’s secret manhunt represents a highly unusual and relentless push to journalists’ records. This included placing CNN General Counsel David Vigilante under a gag order preventing him from sharing any details about the government’s efforts with anyone other than the network’s president, senior attorneys at CNN’s parent company and attorneys at an outside law firm.
Had Vigilante violated this order, he would have been at risk of arrest for contempt of court or the possibility of facing a criminal prosecution for obstruction of justice.
It is not uncommon for a media organization to receive a subpoena from the Department of Justice over reporter records and negotiate the protection of its journalists. What distinguishes it is the utter secrecy surrounding the matter, the months-long court proceedings, and the Trump administration’s unwillingness to negotiate.
This spring, the Justice Department notified reporters at CNN, The Washington Post and The New York Times that records had been seized in various investigations. It was the first public acknowledgment of the Trump administration’s attempts to obtain journalists’ communications without their knowledge.
CNN’s court battle appears to be the most drawn-out effort that resulted in the network agreeing to hand over a limited set of email records after reaching a deal with the Justice Department just days after the Biden administration.
The Justice Department provided arguments and classified information to two judges. All the while, CNN’s lawyers were unable to learn even basic information about the Justice Department’s pursuit of what appears to be a national security leak investigation aimed at wiping out tens of thousands of email records of CNN reporter Barbara Starr from 2017.
It remains unclear what investigation the records request was linked to. Prosecutors were looking for email records from a period of time when Star told about US military options in North Korea it was ready to present to Trump, as well as stories about Syria and Afghanistan.
A Justice Department official previously confirmed that Starr was never the target of any investigation. There was no indication that she had broken any laws.
On Wednesday, a federal judge revealed parts of the case, allowing Vigilante to reveal the details of the legal battle for the first time. Additional court records remain off-limits to CNN.
CNN, the New York Times and the Washington Post officials are scheduled to meet Monday with current Attorney General Merrick Garland, who announced this weekend that his department will not demand journalists’ records in the leak investigation.
CNN’s General Counsel was first notified of the DOJ manhunt on July 17, 2020 when a confidential order was sent from a federal magistrates judge that ruled that CNN must provide records of its correspondence emails stored on the company’s servers. The order was based on a confidential filing by the Department of Justice to the Virginia Magistrates’ Court and requesting the names and dates of emails sent to and from Starr between June and July 2017, Vigilante said Wednesday.
The judge’s decision meant that more than 30,000 email records were made available.
While it is not clear how Attorney General Barr was involved, under DoJ practice, prosecutors have been informing political appointees at the highest levels of the Ministry of Justice, including the attorney general, about the prosecution.
The request came with another directive: Vigilante could not disclose his presence to Grid or to “Star”, or else he would be in danger of being arrested for contempt of court or criminally prosecuted.
Lawyers representing CNN attempted to negotiate with a Department of Justice attorney, as is customary in response to such a broad order. But prosecutors were not interested in narrowing the scope of what they sought, Vigilante said.
Vigilante was not allowed to know the target of the investigation, what Star reports were under scrutiny or even when the investigation first began.
“In short, all the tools that lawyers use every day to act in these situations have been rejected,” Vigilante said.