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CNN gave e-mails to federal prosecutors to settle probe

Lawyers for CNN turned over a limited number of e-mails from an account used by one of its reporters in order to settle a protracted legal battle with federal prosecutors, the network affirmed this week.

The e-mails were disclosed after lawyers for the AT&T-owned cable channel complained in court about attempts by prosecutors with the U.S. Department of Justice to uncover anonymous sources used in various political news stories.

The disclosure came after a federal judge lifted a gag order that prevented CNN employees and their lawyers from discussing the issue, which began when Justice Department investigators issued a subpoena last year that demanded the news channel turn over e-mail records connected to an account used by Barbara Starr, the network’s correspondent assigned to the Pentagon.

The subpoena and associated gag order was delivered in July 2020 to David Vigilante, CNN’s general counsel. News of the subpoena eventually reached Jeffrey Zucker, CNN’s president, who was also forbidden from disclosing its existence.

The probe set off a lengthy legal battle between Justice Department officials and the news channel that was eventually settled when CNN agreed to disclose a limited number of e-mail records to prosecutors probing various leaks to the news media. According to a CNN reporter, the network ultimately agreed to produce “a limited number of email records” in order to end the legal battle.

Those records contained data that “the government already had from its side of these communications,” the reporter said, though specifics of what those records contained were not offered.

Separately, the Justice Department also seized phone records and certain e-mail data related to personal accounts used by Starr, who was only notified of those moves last month, the New York Times reported. CNN said it was previously unaware of the seizure of that material because it was contained in digital accounts that were not owned or operated by the news network or AT&T.

The revelation of the subpoena and gag order against CNN follows news from other outlets, including the New York Times and Washington Post, of similar moves by Justice Department investigators who sought to learn the real-world identities of anonymous sources who leaked sensitive information to national reporters during the administration of former President Donald Trump.

Some of those battles extended beyond Trump’s term in office, though they seemed to be settled to the satisfaction of federal prosecutors within weeks of President Joe Biden’s inauguration, which took place in January.

The probes have triggered strong condemnation from journalism advocacy groups, criticism that has led to policy changes within the Justice Department.

Earlier this month, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland said Justice Department investigators would no longer seize records connected to reporters in leak investigations, though he stopped short of saying journalists would not be targeted in federal probes altogether.

“We have adopted a policy which is the most protective of journalists’ ability to do their jobs in history,” Garland professed during a Senate hearing on Wednesday. “We will not use compulsory process in leak investigations to require reporters to provide information about their sources when they’re doing their job as reporters. That is going to be our policy.”

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About the Author:

Matthew Keys

Matthew Keys is an award-winning journalist with more than 10 years of experience covering the business of television and radio broadcasting, streaming services and the overall media industry. In addition to his work as publisher of The Desk, Matthew contributes regularly to StreamTV Insider and KnowTechie, and has worked for several well-known news organizations, including Thomson Reuters, McNaughton Newspapers, Grasswire, Comstock's magazine, KTXL-TV and KGO-TV. Matthew is a member of IRE, a trade organization for investigative reporters and editors, and is based in Northern California.

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