Attorney General Merrick Garland met with top executives at CNN, The New York Times and Washington Post Monday in the aftermath of revelations that gag orders were imposed while the Trump administration Department of Justice worked to seize emails of national security reporters.
In a statement, the DOJ called the meeting a "productive conversation," noting that media executives and Garland "agreed on the need for strong, durable rules."
During the discussion, the DOJ also made clear that reporters were never the subject or the target of the recent investigations, the statement said.
Bruce Brown, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said executives were "encouraged" by the meeting and "communicated in very blunt terms to DOJ leadership what an existential crisis that was for these organizations," Politico reported.
In addition to journalists from prominent organizations, a number of lawmakers were targeted during a probe by the Trump administration into classified information leaks, according to recent news reports.
Democratic Representatives Adam Schiff and Eric Swalwell were informed last week that the Justice Department had taken their metadata from Apple in 2018 as part of a crackdown on leaks in the Russia probe and other national security issues.
According to the Insider news website, Trump-era Attorneys General Jeff Sessions and William Barr and former Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein all said they didn’t know about the subpoenas aimed at Democratic lawmakers.
Earlier Monday, Garland released a statement condemning those attempts, saying "important questions" must be resolved about what happened.
"I have accordingly directed that the matter be referred to the Inspector General and have full confidence that he will conduct a thorough and independent investigation," the statement read.
Schiff, who chairs the U.S. House Intelligence Committee, released a statement after his conversation with Garland on Monday, saying he was confident that the current attorney general would adequately investigate.
"It will also be important for Congress to do its own oversight to ensure that the Department of Justice can never be used to protect a president's friends or accomplices, or as a potential weapon against a president's perceived political enemies," Schiff said.
But this week, journalists have said that statements of support for a free press from the Biden administration hold little meaning without codified protections.
"President Biden has said the seizing of reporters' records will be stopped under his administration. But with all respect to him and his stated intentions, that is a promise of limited relevance," wrote national security reporter Barbara Star in an op-ed for CNN. During the Trump administration, Starr's emails were subpoenaed without her knowledge.
"Unless new protections are codified, this could all happen again to any journalist," she wrote, adding that she was "horrified" with what had happened.
Also on Monday, multiple news outlets reported that John Demers, the head of the DOJ's national security division, is expected to step down by the end of the week.
The New York Times reported that Demers, "the longest-serving Senate-confirmed official from the Trump administration to remain at the Justice Department during the Biden presidency," had been expected to leave the DOJ this summer even before controversy over leak investigations were revealed this month.
The broadcaster CNN reported this week that its top lawyer was subjected to a gag order in 2020, when the DOJ under then-Attorney General Barr sought the email records of a national security correspondent.
The New York Times and Washington Post were placed under similar orders, all reporting in recent weeks on efforts by the DOJ to seize journalists' records as part of investigations into leaks of material. The Times reported that the department sought the reporters' email logs in an attempt to identify their sources.
Media experts and lawyers have condemned the DOJ's actions.
Under DOJ guidelines, the attorney general must sign off on a subpoena for reporters' records, and any seizures of news records should be treated as "extraordinary measures, not standard investigatory practices."
The guidelines state that a journalist or outlet must be notified unless "such notice would pose a clear and substantial threat to the integrity of the investigation, risk grave harm to national security, or present an imminent risk of death or serious bodily harm."
In the cases revealed in recent weeks, none of the outlets was informed of the subpoena requests, and two were subject to gag orders.