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Justice releases statistics on subpoenas of reporters

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  1. Protecting Sources and Materials

    NMU         WASHINGTON, D.C.         Confidentiality/Privilege         Dec 6, 2001    

 

Justice releases statistics on subpoenas of reporters

  • Sen. Charles Grassley had asked the department to provide detailed answers regarding the subpoena of an Associated Press reporter’s home phone records, as well as other subpoenas of reporters in the last 10 years.

In the most detailed explanation of how and why it subpoenas reporters, the Justice Department says it has authorized 88 subpoenas of the news media from 1991 through Sept. 6, 2001.

Of those subpoenas, 17 sought information that could identify a reporter’s source or source material, according to the department.

And in eight of the cases — five involving subpoenas for reporters’ phone records and three involving requests for documents or testimony — the department said it did not negotiate with reporters before issuing the subpoena because negotiations would have threatened a criminal investigation.

The department listed 33 instances of trial subpoenas served on broadcast and print reporters from outlets ranging in size from The Washington Post to the Mattoon (Ill.) Journal-Gazette. Most of those subpoenas sought aired videotapes of interviews with criminal defendants or print reporters’ testimony to verify the contents of published interviews. Other subpoenas sought reporters’ notes. The department noted that it did not know how the subpoenas were resolved after it approved issuance.

Those details were included in a Nov. 28 letter from Assistant Attorney General Daniel J. Bryant to Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), who had demanded an explanation in September for the agency’s subpoena of Associated Press reporter John Solomon’s home phone records. Solomon did not learn about the subpoena until August, three months after federal prosecutors obtained his phone records from a telephone company.

Grassley is dissatisfied with the Justice Department’s response. In a letter dated Dec. 6 to Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson, Grassley criticized the agency for its tardy response and for supplying vague answers that lack context. Grassley had demanded answers from the department on Sept. 4 and Sept. 6, and had hoped for a reply by Sept. 24.

He fired off a list of more questions, and he wants answers by Jan. 8, 2002.

The department’s response “raises more questions about subpoenas to the media in general and the specific case of Associated Press reporter John Solomon, whose home telephone records were subpoenaed earlier this year without his knowledge,” Grassley wrote.

“I simply wish to get to the bottom of what happened and why it did.”

The Justice Department subpoenaed Solomon’s records to discover the reporter’s confidential source for information about an investigation of Sen. Robert Torricelli (D-N.J.). In a May 4 article, Solomon quoted unidentified law enforcement officials as saying that a government wiretap had recorded conversations between Torricelli and relatives of a prominent Chicago crime figure.

Justice Department officials wanted to find out the source for Solomon’s story because it is illegal for law enforcement officials to disclose the contents of a wiretap.

Justice Department guidelines require federal prosecutors to try to obtain information from another source before issuing a subpoena to a reporter. The department’s letter to Grassley did not say for how many of the 88 subpoenas it pursued such “reasonable alternatives,” although it said those methods have included questioning or obtaining phone records of people who are not members of the media.

“Reasonable alternatives were pursued in all cases where reasonable alternatives existed,” the letter said.

MD

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© 2001 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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