The Department of Justice said it will not seek information identifying the readers of a USA TODAY story from earlier this year, according to a Friday court filing, but only after the FBI captured the alleged criminal it was seeking through other means.
Gannett, which publishes USA TODAY, filed a motion to quash the subpoena, initially issued in April, last week. It was resisting an effort by the FBI to obtain the IP addresses of people who read a story about a shooting of two FBI agents on Feb. 2. The subpoena sought only information on who read the story during a 30-minute time period later that night.
“A government demand for records that would identify specific individuals who read specific expressive materials … invades the First Amendment rights of both publisher and reader, and must be quashed accordingly,” Gannett’s lawyers wrote in a May 28 filing.
USA TODAY Publisher Maribel Perez Wadsworth also slammed the FBI for the effort.
“Being forced to tell the government who reads what on our websites is a clear violation of the First Amendment,” she said in statement quoted in a USA TODAY story. “The FBI’s subpoena asks for private information about readers of our journalism.”
The subpoena was authorized by J. Brooke Donahue, a supervisory special agent. The subpoena was later withdrawn by the FBI on Friday. But the FBI never admitted that the subpoena was incorrect. Rather, it was withdrawn because the FBI found the person it was looking for.
In a statement provided to Fox News, the FBI wrote:
“The administrative subpoena was issued in connection with a child exploitation investigation and was limited to subscriber-related information in a narrow time window. It did not seek any communications records of journalists. The subpoena is being withdrawn because intervening investigative developments have rendered it unnecessary.”
An email from Keith Becker, the deputy chief of the DOJ Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section, said that “The FBI is withdrawing” the subpoena “because the child sexual exploitation offender subject of the investigation has at this time been identified via other means.”
President Joe Biden looks down as he talks about the FBI agents killed in Sunrise, Fla., during an event on immigration in the Oval Office of the White House, Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2021, in Washington. The FBI later sought information on readers of a USA TODAY story about the same shooting. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
The FBI did not immediately respond to a request for comment on whether it continues to believe it has the right to subpoena personal information of news organizations’ readers given First Amendment protections for press and free association, as well as President Biden’s professed commitment to press freedom.
The news that the FBI is backtracking on its effort to get information on USA TODAY readers comes as the DOJ is under scrutiny for efforts under both the Trump and Biden administrations to obtain reporters’ communications in an effort to identify their sources.
The New York Times reported Friday that DOJ, under both administrations, sought the records of four Times reporters from 2017. The Biden administration informed a handful of Times executives about the battle but imposed a since-lifted gag order that prevented the executives from disclosing the efforts even to the executive editor, Dean Baquet.
According to the Times, the effort — which began in 2020 — was to seize email logs from Google, which operates the outlet’s email system and had also denied the government access to the information.
The Washington Post last month also reported that the DOJ under Trump secretly got its hands on the phone records of several of its reporters. And CNN also said last month that the DOJ went after the communications of one of its reporters.
The Obama administration also went after reporters’ records, including those of Fox News reporters.
In reaction to the building outrage, the DOJ said this week that it will no longer seek to seize reporters’ records.
“Going forward, consistent with the President’s direction, this Department of Justice – in a change to its longstanding practice – will not seek compulsory legal process in leak investigations to obtain source information from members of the news media doing their jobs,” DOJ spokesperson Anthony Coley said. “The Department strongly values a free press, protecting First Amendment values, and is committed to taking all appropriate steps to ensure the independence of journalists.”
Fox News’ Adam Shaw contributed to this report.