The phone-call records of three reporters with the Washington Post were secretly obtained by officials with Donald Trump’s justice department over a period of three months in 2017, the newspaper reported.
The communication records, which date from 15 April to 31 July of that year, include who called who and when, and how long the call lasted, but do not relay what was said on the calls, the paper said.
The records were obtained under a court order at a time when the reporters were looking into intelligence intercepts indicating that soon-to-be attorney general Jeff Sessions had discussed the Trump campaign with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak in 2016.
The Washington Post said its reporters – Ellen Nakashima, Greg Miller, and former Post reporter Adam Entous – had recently been notified by the justice department of a court order to obtain “non-content communication records”. A request to obtain their emails was denied.
“We are deeply troubled by this use of government power to seek access to the communications of journalists,” said the Post’s acting executive editor Cameron Barr in a statement.
“The Department of Justice should immediately make clear its reasons for this intrusion into the activities of reporters doing their jobs, an activity protected under the first amendment.”
The revelation shows just how anxious the Trump administration was over leaks around claims of Russian interference.
At a news conference in August 2017, a month after the records’ subpoena expired, Sessions held a news conference in which called on government leakers to curb the practice.
The call came after Trump had publicly called out his attorney general for being “weak” on pursuing leakers. Noting that leak investigations had tripled in number since the Obama administration, he declared: “This culture of leaking must stop.”
In a statement, the justice department said: “While rare, the department follows the established procedures within its media guidelines policy when seeking legal process to obtain telephone toll records and non-content email records from media members as part of a criminal investigation into unauthorized disclosure of classified information.”
It added: “The targets of these investigations are not the news media recipients but rather those with access to the national defense information who provided it to the media and thus failed to protect it as lawfully required.”