BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone. As President Biden tried to bring down the temperature in Geneva this week, a long standing argument over press freedom was boiling over in Washington.
NEWS REPORT Leaders from CNN, The New York Times and The Washington Post will meet with Attorney General Merrick Garland today. The meeting is set to discuss a controversial Trump era leak investigation. It comes after revelations that Department of Justice officials saw 2017 phone and email records from reporters at all three media outlets. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE 8 reporters were targeted, and we don't yet have an official reason why, but we can guess. In 2017, The Washington Post and The New York Times were each reporting out stories that involved leaked classified documents. Under Trump, the DOJ went looking for the news room sources and hit a dead end. But in 2020, then Attorney General William Barr restarted the probe, this time filing subpoenas for the journalists e-mail and phone records and issuing gag orders, so the news organizations lawyers couldn't tell the staff that they were targets. 2021 brought a change in command, but initially no change in policy. Under Biden, the DOJ continued fighting in court to obtain phone and email records for reporters at the Times. In March, it issued yet another gag order. But this month, both the gag and the quest for records were dropped, and the new president expressed scrupulous regret.
PRESIDENT BIDEN It's simply, simply wrong.
NEWS REPORT So you won't let your Justice Department do that?
PRESIDENT BIDEN I won't let that happen. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE While conceding some mildly exculpatory ignorance.
JEN PSAKI It's an independent Justice Department. They will proceed, of course, with a range of investigations, which, as we noted in our statement on Saturday morning, we did not know about the gag order until minutes before the reporting came out on Friday night. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE The tension between government secrets and a free press that spanned multiple decades and administrations. And Matt Apuzzo, an international investigative reporter for The New York Times is no stranger to being caught in the middle. Matt, welcome to On the Media.
MATT APUZZO Thanks so much for having me here.
BROOKE GLADSTONE What do you make of the White House spokesperson Jen Psaki's response that the DOJ is an independent body, that the Biden administration itself didn't even know what was going on for a while? I think she said that. And we condemn Trump for using the department as his own private goon squad. She didn't say that. Should we slam Biden for a lag before pulling the break?
MATT APUZZO I don't really care. I'm not into this for politics. My colleagues and I went through this under the Obama administration. The Obama administration used the Espionage Act in unprecedented ways to go after people. That administration completely trampled on the rights of a free press. So this is a bipartisan strategy here.
BROOKE GLADSTONE The incident you were directly involved in under the Obama administration, that was back in 2013. You were at AP and you and reporter Adam Goldman broke news about an al-Qaeda affiliated bomb plot in Yemen.
MATT APUZZO We revealed that there was an active plot, that the government knew about it. Wasn't telling people that there were active threats to travel, threats to the homeland, and that this was a very live plot with a sophisticated new type of bomb. They initiated an investigation and they seized our phone records without any sort of ability to argue in court that that was an overreach. I would love to say that we were the only ones that happened to, but unfortunately, the Obama administration made a habit of going after reporters and going after people who talk to reporters. And so the rules that dictate how the Justice Department should handle these sorts of things changed under the Obama administration.
BROOKE GLADSTONE In his second term, these incidents dropped off.
MATT APUZZO Yeah. And the idea was that there should be a higher bar when the government comes for reporter work product, and that reporters ideally should get a chance to argue in court that this is an overreach. And then the administration changed and we went right back to square one.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Go back one more administration to George W. Bush. The DOJ was very aggressive with national security reporters. Jailed Judy Miller, a Times reporter for 85 days for refusing to reveal confidential sources regarding CIA operative Valerie Plame. This is not partisan. I'm just wondering, leak investigations, seized records, gag orders. We all know that this is going to have a chilling effect, but have you ever experienced a likely source backing off because of this?
MATT APUZZO Yeah, I mean, look, you can never know why somebody doesn't want to talk to you, but I can absolutely tell you the chilling effect is real. It is not a theoretical thing. And that is precisely why it gets done. It gets done to tell people in the government that they're going to get caught if they step out of line. Because let's remember, what gets you in trouble in Washington is not talking about classified information. What gets you in trouble in Washington is talking about stuff that makes the government mad. Right, nobody gets in trouble for talking about the bin Laden raid. Let's tell the whole story in every detail about the most highly classified operation ever. We'll make a movie about it, right. Well, CIA will participate. What gets you in trouble is when you say actually, you know, they're waterboarding people in secret prisons, or there's illegal wiretapping going on or the government collecting everybody's phone records in America. They hide under the guise of “it's classified,” even though everything in this government is classified. The intention is to scare people off of talking to reporters. That's the goal, so that the only information that gets out is the officially blessed version of the story.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You'd been through this before. How was it for you when you found out about this latest incident?
MATT APUZZO We had seen that the government had come for The Washington Post and we'd seen that they'd come for CNN. So when they said, oh, yeah, you guys, too, it wasn't a huge surprise, but obviously it was really upsetting. And the real thing that was upsetting, Brooke, is that this is career law enforcement people, weaponizing really anti-American anti-press rhetoric. When the president of the United States says the press is the enemy of the people and he points to The New York Times, The Washington Post and CNN, and then prosecutors go and get a secret order to start rummaging around in email accounts and in phone records, that should be troubling to anybody.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Do you think that some of your sources and those of other reporters have been revealed during this process?
MATT APUZZO I don't know. I mean, I don't know at this point what they have, what they intend to do with it. I sure as hell think they should give back what they have and destroy copies. But first, we need to know what the heck happened. We need a reckoning to know, were the rules followed? The rules are pretty clear that this has to be signed off on by the attorney general and the head of public affairs. So let's just see the chain of command. Let's see if the policy worked.
BROOKE GLADSTONE What do you do to prevent your records becoming vulnerable? You use encryption procedures that offer some protection to a source.
MATT APUZZO Yeah, of course. I mean, you know, everybody has encrypted apps on their phone now and you try to do your meetings in person and for sensitive stuff, leave your phone at home. But look, here's the thing. Reporters aren't spies and we shouldn't have to be. We're not doing anything wrong. We're trying to tell the story of our government and that's important. We can all take precaution, but it is naive of us to think that I, sitting at The New York Times with my phone in an encrypted app, am going to defeat the most sophisticated and best funded intelligence gathering operation in the history of mankind. I mean, that's just not going to happen.
BROOKE GLADSTONE What would satisfy you, Matt? Assuming that there are sometimes, rarely, occasions where a reporter or a source may overstep and actually threaten national security?
MATT APUZZO Two things on that. First, I want to push back on this idea that harming national security is somehow a standard, because looking at everything we know about the way the government has conducted itself since 9/11, about drone strikes or secret prisons, torture, abuses at Guantanamo Bay, abuses at Abu Ghraib, warrantless wiretapping, everything we know was under this guise of if you reveal that, you're going to harm national security. So if you took that off the table, what would you know about what the government does to keep you safe? You would know nothing. They always say if you print the truth, it's going to harm national security. So that's the first thing. The second thing I would push back on is when I talk to my kids, when something goes wrong, I get you’re sorry. And I get you promise you're never going to do it again. But first, I need to understand what happened. So I, you asked me what would satisfy me, I'm much more interested right now in understanding how this went off the rails than I am trying to envision, what are we going to do. Because we can't ask the question of how are we going to fix it until we know what happened.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So what's that missing piece that's getting at you?
MATT APUZZO Where did the idea for these subpoenas come from? What were they looking for? Who proposed it? Who authorized it? Were the internal procedures followed? Why did the government argue behind closed doors, we couldn't possibly tell the reporters that we wanted to see their phone records. We couldn't possibly let them come to court because it was a big secret. Why was that allowed to be said when there's an article, I think, on the front page of The New York Times and elsewhere saying there's a leak investigation going on into these stories. I just want to know and I know the inspector general is investigating this, and I know, obviously the fact that members of Congress and their families also had records seized on them. It's all part of this. Look, nobody is arguing the government doesn't have a right to protect its own secrets and to conduct internal investigations. They have huge power to do that internally. They can go through people's phone records. They can do polygraphs, they could pull security clearances. There's no shortages of tools that they have at their disposal. What I don't understand is why this all powerful intelligence apparatus that has cropped up in the last 20 years, suddenly hits a dead end and is really interested in going through my news gathering materials. So wherever we end up, I'd be, be pretty happy to have that line be a little clearer.
BROOKE GLADSTONE The implication is that they don't need journalists to find the stuff out. So they're doing it for another reason.
MATT APUZZO Yeah, they're sending a message that if you write stories we don't like, there's always the risk of consequences. It's as much a message for me and my colleagues as it is for everybody who works in the government. And again, there's no surprise that the news organizations that they came for with The Washington Post, The New York Times and CNN, given everything that the former president was saying about those news organizations almost on a daily basis.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Thank you very much.
MATT APUZZO Thanks, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Matt Apuzzo is an international investigative reporter for The New York Times, based in Belgium.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.