U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

Trump Justice Department secretly obtained CNN Pentagon reporter’s email, phone records

Incident Details

January 1, 2020

The U.S. Department of Justice informed CNN Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr on May 13, 2021, that under the Trump administration, the agency secretly obtained her work and personal phone and email records, CNN reported.

According to CNN, prosecutors obtained Starr’s records from June 1 to July 31, 2017, including records from her phone extension at the Pentagon, the CNN Pentagon booth phone, Starr’s home and work numbers, and both her work and personal email accounts.

The phone information obtained included “toll records” for each number, which detail the numbers of calls to and from the line and the duration of each. Similarly, prosecutors obtained “non-content information” for Starr’s email addresses: the recipient, sender and timestamp of each email but not the contents, the outlet reported. CNN said the records were obtained without notifying Starr or her employer.

It is unclear what investigators were looking for, CNN reported, as well as when the investigation was opened and whether it was by Attorney General Jeff Sessions or Attorney General William Barr, both appointed by former President Trump. Neither Starr nor CNN responded to requests for comment.

Anthony Coley, DOJ’s director of public affairs and a senior advisor to Attorney General Merrick Garland, said in a statement to CNN that the decision to subpoena Starr’s communications was approved by the Trump administration in 2020.

“Department leadership will soon meet with reporters to hear their concerns about recent notices and further convey Attorney General Garland’s staunch support of and commitment to a free and independent press,” Coley said.

“CNN strongly condemns the secret collection of any aspect of a journalist’s correspondence, which is clearly protected by the First Amendment,” said CNN President Jeff Zucker in a statement to the outlet. “We are asking for an immediate meeting with the Justice Department for an explanation.”

The revelation about Starr’s records was one in a series of recent disclosures about the Trump administration’s efforts to use the seizure of journalists’ communications to identify leakers or critics of the administration.

CNN reported that DOJ regulations for issuing media subpoenas were changed under the Obama administration in 2015, to require that the attorney general authorize any such legal orders related to journalists’ communications or work product. While the regulations mandated that the journalist and outlet be notified of the seizures, the policy set no clear timetable for notification.

On May 21, 2021, President Joe Biden condemned such seizures as “simply, simply wrong” following the revelations about Starr’s records, The Associated Press reported. In keeping with Biden’s sentiments, the DOJ announced on June 5 that it will no longer seize journalists’ records during leak investigations, according to the AP.

“This announcement is a potential sea change for press freedom rights in the United States,” Trevor Timm, executive director of Freedom of the Press Foundation, said in a statement. “While we’re encouraged to see this announcement ending this invasive and disturbing tactic, the devil is — of course — in the details. The Justice Department must now write this categorical bar of journalist surveillance into its official ‘media guidelines,’ and Congress should also immediately enshrine the rules into law to ensure no administration can abuse its power again.”

Attorney General Merrick Garland met with executives from CNN as well as those from The New York Times and The Washington Post on June 14, and affirmed the planned policy changes.

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