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Trump administration sued CNN reporter in secret months-long court battle

The lawsuit – which began in July 2020 under then-Attorney General William Barr with a two-month request from the email logs of CNN Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr in 2017 – continued even after a Federal judge told the Department of Justice his argument in favor of access to Starr. internal emails were “speculative” and “not rooted in any fact”.

Had Vigilante violated this order, he would have risked being charged with contempt of court or could face criminal prosecution for obstructing justice.

RELATED: CNN lawyer describes gag order and covert process where Justice Department requested journalist’s email recordings

It is not uncommon for a media organization to receive a subpoena from the Justice Department for journalists’ files and to negotiate protections for its journalists. What stands out is the total secrecy that surrounded the order, the legal process that lasted for months, and the Trump administration’s reluctance to negotiate.

This spring, the Justice Department informed reporters from CNN, The Washington Post and The New York Times that files 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 legal battle appears to be the longest of efforts and resulted in the network agreeing to hand over a limited set of email logs after reaching a deal with the Department of Justice just days after the start of the campaign. ‘Biden administration.

The Ministry of Justice submitted arguments and classified information confidentially to two judges. Throughout, lawyers for the network have been unable to obtain basic information about the Justice Department’s prosecution in what appears to be a national security leak investigation that aimed to sweep dozens of thousands of Starr email logs as of 2017.

It is still unclear to which investigation the request for documents was related. Prosecutors were looking for email recordings of a period when Starr reported on US military options in North Korea ready to be presented to Trump, as well as articles on Syria and Afghanistan.

A Justice Department official has previously confirmed that Starr has never been the target of an investigation. There has never been any indication that Starr broke any laws.

A federal judge unsealed parts of the case on Wednesday, freeing Vigilante to disclose details of the legal battle for the first time. Additional court cases are still on hold, even from CNN’s perspective.

CNN, The New York Times and The Washington Post executives are scheduled to meet with current Attorney General Merrick Garland on Monday, who announced over the weekend that his department would not require journalists’ files in investigations into the leaks.

A secret order

Vigilante was first notified of the Justice Department’s lawsuit on July 17, 2020 when he received a secret order issued by a federal judge that ruled that CNN must produce tapes of Starr’s emails kept on company servers. The order was based on a secret Justice Department submission to the Virginia Magistrate’s Court and searched for the names and dates of emails sent to and from Starr between June and July 2017, Vigilante said Wednesday.

The judge’s ruling would have meant providing more than 30,000 email records.

While it is not clear to what extent Attorney General Barr was involved, according to Justice Department practice, prosecutors reportedly briefed political appointees at the highest levels of the Justice Department, including the Attorney General. , of the pursuit.

The request came with another directive: Vigilante could not reveal his existence to the network or to Starr, or he risked being charged with contempt of court or criminal prosecution.

Trump administration sued CNN reporter in secret months-long court battle

“I have never encountered a situation like this,” Vigilante said this week. “I felt like there was a sword of Damocles on me for the year.”

Vigilante immediately brought in experienced Washington attorneys Jamie Gorelick, Aaron Zebley, and Paul Wolfson from law firm WilmerHale. They were also able to debrief CNN Chairman Jeff Zucker with limited details early on.

Lawyers representing CNN have tried to negotiate with DOJ attorneys, as would be typical in response to an order as broad as this one. But prosecutors weren’t interested in restricting what they were looking for, Vigilante said.

Vigilante was not allowed to know the target of the investigation, what Starr report was under surveillance or even when the investigation began.

“In short, all of the tools that lawyers use on a daily basis to navigate these situations have been denied us,” said Vigilante.

Judicial battle

CNN first went to court in September 2020 to overturn or narrow the order. In a closed-door videoconference hearing on Oct. 7, Federal Judge Theresa Buchanan in Virginia asked the Justice Department to restrict her request. Yet prosecutors returned to his court two days later, confidentially sharing an affidavit – which CNN could not see – that included classified information and convinced Buchanan to authorize the order.

In November, CNN filed an appeal.

In an appeal hearing on Dec. 16, a new judge, U.S. District Judge Anthony Trenga of the Eastern District of Virginia, sided with CNN. In response to DOJ’s argument regarding internal emails, the judge noted: “The information requested, by its nature, is too toned down and not sufficiently linked to relevant, material or investigative evidence. attributed by the government, especially when viewed in light of the First Amendment activities to which it relates, ”according to Vigilante.

“This was the first characterization of the evidence we had seen, and it was astounding,” Vigilante said Wednesday.

Trump administration sued CNN reporter in secret months-long court battle

CNN attorneys tried to resolve the case, but on January 15, five days before the Biden administration took over, the Justice Department again asked Trenga to reconsider his decision.

It was the same day the US attorney overseeing the Virginia investigation, Zachary Terwilliger, left his post and other senior officials left the Trump administration. Prosecutors in the Department of Justice’s national security division, which is still headed by Trump-appointed John Demers, were also involved in the order and investigation.

On January 26, a resolution was taken. The Justice Department accepted much closer disclosure and agreed that the July order would no longer be in effect in the future. This resolution opened the door for Starr to get involved in advance if there were any further requests.

In May, the Justice Department informed Starr of the seizure of his communications. In that letter, CNN first learned that the Justice Department had also obtained records relating to Starr’s phone numbers and personal email account. None of these accounts were held by CNN or its parent company AT&T.


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