U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

Justice Department questions journalist’s motives in reporting on federal terror case

Incident Details

SCREENSHOT

An excerpt of a May 29, 2024, filing in which federal prosecutors attacked reporter Trevor Aaronson’s motives for interviewing the defendant in a terrorism case.

— SCREENSHOT
May 29, 2024

Federal prosecutors attacked a reporter’s motives in a U.S. district court filing May 29, 2024, that sought to keep documents sealed in a terrorism case, suggesting that the journalist was colluding with the defendant to undermine their case.

The filing in the case of alleged terrorist Aws Naser is centered on the defendant’s relationship and conversations with The Intercept contributing writer Trevor Aaronson, an award-winning journalist whose work largely centers on counterterrorism cases.

“The Court should consider the possibility of improper motives on the part of the media ‘such as promoting public scandal or gratifying private spite,’” prosecutors wrote in the 23-page filing. They also suggested that Aaronson was working with Naser to “taint the jury pool and undermine the fairness of the trial.”

Aaronson told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker that the allegations against him were false, outrageous and dangerous to press freedoms.

“If journalists don’t stand up to these kinds of attacks from the Justice Department, we run the very real risk of those attacks continuing and growing,” Aaronson told the Tracker. “I also plan to continue reporting on this case, because we also can’t allow these kinds of attacks to create a chilling effect.”

An attorney for Aaronson and The Intercept sent a letter to the judge and attended a hearing in the U.S. District Court in Detroit.

“This Court should be alarmed by the Government’s public attacks on a journalist who has been working diligently to obtain the information it aims to conceal from the public,” the letter said.

Since 2019, Aaronson has been interviewing Naser, a former U.S. military translator who was born in Iraq and raised in Michigan, he explained in The Intercept. Naser had previously been convicted of armed robbery and was jailed when the journalist met him, Aaronson wrote.

Aaronson explained that he was investigating whether Naser’s Fourth Amendment right to unlawful search and seizure had been violated, and was seeking information about any ties between Naser’s parole officer and the FBI.

Naser’s attorneys sought to reclassify 124 files that are part of the discovery process from “sensitive” to “general,” in anticipation that it may shed light on those issues.

Since 2022, when Naser was charged with attempting to provide material support to ISIS, Aaronson wrote that he has been recording phone interviews with him for a possible audio documentary. Law enforcement was also recording those calls.

Aaronson told the Tracker that he hasn’t decided whether to create a documentary; nevertheless, prosecutors cited it in their filing. They called it a “one-sided documentary” that would be “sensationalizing the FBI’s investigative techniques in terrorism cases.”

Prosecutors also claimed a documentary would be a powerful vehicle for “evoking strong emotions, and creating a long-lasting impression of the subject matter.”

Aaronson told the Tracker that he adheres to the “same high journalistic standards” regardless of the medium or length of his work.

“The government doesn’t have a say in what form a journalist’s reporting takes when it reaches the public, and the government dangerously suggests with this statement that documentaries are propaganda, not journalism,” he told the Tracker.

The judge hasn’t issued a ruling. The next months would show whether prosecutors continue citing Aaronson as a reason to keep them sealed, he told the Tracker.

“At a time of increasing attacks on the press from both the public and current and former government officials, I think we need to remember that it’s important to defend press freedoms whenever they are questioned or attacked by a government agency,” Aaronson told the Tracker. “Especially the Justice Department, whose prosecutors swore an oath [to] defend our constitutional freedoms, including freedom of the press.”

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker catalogues press freedom violations in the United States. Email tips to [email protected].