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Media Leaders Met With Merrick Garland To Discuss Secret Leak Investigations

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Attorney General Merrick Garland met today with top executives and lawyers from three major news outlets - The New York Times, The Washington Post and CNN. Under the last administration, the Justice Department secretly sought phone and email records from journalists at all three organizations, apparently part of a hunt for the source of embarrassing leaks. NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik joins us now with more.

Hi, David.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.

SHAPIRO: What happened at this meeting today?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, the meeting was said to be off the record, but Attorney General Merrick Garland and the Justice Department released a statement essentially saying they are making guarantees that the Justice Department no longer seek to compel through the courts that either news organizations had to turn over reporters' records or the metadata surrounding, you know, their actual phone calls or their actual emails, so they could figure out who had talked to whom, or that providers, like email providers, like Google or, you know, other digital giants, didn't have to hand over such records as well. And he said he was going to seek ways to codify that.

That's been a key concern because although Garland had in recent days, after recent revelations, said that the Justice Department wouldn't be doing this anymore, they want this to last. They don't want this just to be sort of done at whim or at the mercy of a sitting attorney general. I will say that Bruce Brown, who's with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, came out afterward, basically speaking for the media executives and lawyers assembled. And he has said that they made clear urgently what an existential moment it was for them that the Justice Department had done this to their reporters.

SHAPIRO: You say had done this to their reporters. Remind us what exactly it was that was done.

FOLKENFLIK: Sure. Well, what was done was that the Justice Department under former President Donald Trump had sought all kinds of emails and metadata, as I said, and phone records as well from a number of leading reporters. It's not exactly clear what the investigation was. Merrick Garland said today that they were - the reporters were not themselves the subjects or targets of these investigations, meaning they were means to an end for federal prosecutors in seeking this information. But nonetheless, one of the shocking things, I think, to a lot of media executives was despite previous promises by Joe Biden, President Biden, that his administration would not be as muscular in seeking information from the press, actually, under the Justice Department and the Biden administration's first months, they had pursued certain kinds of records as well. And they had sought gag orders from judges to make sure that media executives wouldn't even be informed that they had sought to do this. That was seen as a terrible double blow. And in fact, Jerry Nadler, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, this evening put out a statement saying that he would be investigating Department of Justice's efforts to get reporters' records.

SHAPIRO: What were the stakes here, and where does it go next?

FOLKENFLIK: I think people shouldn't glide over this as, hey, another clash in Washington. This is a big moment, despite the fact that you see the attorney general kind of smoothing things over. I think it's big on two levels. One is that there's a second tier of this, which is that it turns out, from revelations - Justice Department, that a number of Democratic lawmakers - Adam Schiff, Eric Swalwell, both Democratic lawmakers and critics of the president, President Trump - had their records and emails and those of their associates also sought. But here, the question is, as Garland himself has acknowledged, that the press needs the ability to operate. It needs the ability to get information, even from leakers. That's not illegal for the reporters to do that. And even if it's inconvenient or illegal for that information to be gotten, in most cases, this is part of their job - keeping the powerful held to account. And democracy doesn't work if citizens don't have the information to make informed votes.

SHAPIRO: NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik, thank you.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.