The US Department of Justice has said it will no longer secretly obtain reporters’ records during investigations of leaks of classified information.
Last month, President Joe Biden called the policy, which has been criticised by news organisations and press freedom groups, “simply, simply wrong” and pledged not to continue allowing it.
Though Mr Biden’s comments in an interview were not immediately accompanied by any change in policy, statements from the White House and Justice Department on Saturday signalled an official reversal from an investigative tactic that has persisted for years.
Democratic and Republican administrations alike have used subpoenas and court orders to obtain journalists’ records in an effort to identify sources who have revealed classified information.
But the practice has received renewed scrutiny in the past month as Justice Department officials alerted reporters at three news organisations – The Washington Post, CNN and The New York Times – that their phone records had been obtained in the final year of the Trump administration.
The latest revelation came on Friday, when the Times reported the existence of a gag order that had barred the newspaper from revealing a secret court fight over efforts to obtain the email records of four reporters.
That tussle had begun during the Trump administration but had persisted under the Biden Justice Department, which ultimately moved to withdraw the gag order.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement on Saturday that no one at the White House was aware of the gag order until Friday night, but that more broadly, “the issuing of subpoenas for the records of reporters in leak investigations is not consistent with the president’s policy direction to the department”.
In a separate statement, Justice Department spokesman Anthony Coley said that “in a change to its longstanding practice”, the department “will not seek compulsory legal process in leak investigations to obtain source information from members of the news media doing their jobs”.
He added: “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.”
In ruling out “compulsory legal process” for reporters in leak investigations, the department also appeared to say that it would not force journalists to reveal in court the identity of their sources.
Bruce D Brown, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said he welcomed the policy change but that serious unanswered questions remain about what happened in each of these cases.
The two newspapers whose reporters’ phone records had been secretly obtained also said more needed to be done.
“This is a welcome step to protecting the ability of the press to provide the public with essential information about what their government is doing,” New York Times publisher A G Sulzberger said in a statement.
“However, there is significantly more that needs to be done and we are still awaiting an explanation on why the Department of Justice moved so aggressively to seize journalists’ records.”
Washington Post executive editor Sally Buzbee said the newspaper was calling on the Biden administration and the Justice Department “to provide a full accounting of the chain of events in both administrations and to implement enduring protections to prevent any future recurrence”.
The Department of Justice statement did not say whether it would still conduct aggressive leak investigations without obtaining reporters’ records.
It also did not define who exactly would be counted as a member of the media for the purposes of the policy and how broadly the protection would apply.
Court rules woman, 73, who took part in Charles Manson killings should be released on parole
A 73-year-old woman who took part in two killings on the orders of cult leader Charles Manson in 1969 should be released from prison on parole, a Californian appeals court has ruled.
Leslie Van Houten is serving a life sentence for helping Manson and other followers kill Leno LaBianca, a grocer in Los Angeles, and his wife Rosemary.
Van Houten was 19 at the time.
Mr LaBianca’s body was carved up during the killing and the couple’s blood was smeared on the walls.
The killings came the day after other Manson followers, not including Van Houten, killed pregnant actress Sharon Tate and four others in violence that shocked Los Angeles and the nation.
Van Houten, then one of Manson’s youngest followers, has spent more than 50 years in prison.
The appeal court’s ruling reverses an earlier decision by California Governor Gavin Newsom, who rejected parole for Van Houten in 2020.
She has been recommended for parole five times since 2016. All of those recommendations were rejected by either Mr Newsom or former California governor Jerry Brown.
Mr Newsom has said that Van Houten still poses a danger to society. In rejecting her parole, he said she offered an inconsistent and inadequate explanation for her involvement with Manson at the time of the killings.
But the Second District Court of Appeal in Los Angeles has now ruled 2-1 to reverse Mr Newsom’s decision, writing there is “no evidence to support the Governor’s conclusions” about Van Houten’s fitness for parole.
It marks the first time a court has overruled a governor’s denial of parole to a Manson follower, according to the Los Angeles Times.
However, California Attorney General Rob Bonta could still ask the California Supreme Court to stop her release.
Neither his office nor Mr Newsom’s immediately responded to requests for comment on whether they would do so, according to local reports.
Nancy Tetreault, Van Houten’s lawyer, said she expects Mr Bonta to ask the state’s supreme court to review the court’s decision in a process that could take years.
Manson, who died in prison in 2017 at age 83, instructed his mostly young and female followers to murder seven people in August 1969 in what prosecutors said was part of a plan to spark a race war.
Although Manson, one of the 20th century’s most notorious criminals, did not personally kill any of the seven victims, he was found guilty of ordering their murders.
Manson’s life and crimes
The death sentences given to Manson and his followers were commuted to life in prison after capital punishment was ruled unconstitutional in 1972.
Van Houten’s 1971 original conviction and death sentence was initially overturned on appeal, but she was retried, convicted and sentenced to prison in 1978.
Ron DeSantis calls Trump’s COVID lockdown criticisms ‘ridiculous’ at his first US presidential campaign event
Ron DeSantis has begun his bid to become the Republican candidate for US president by claiming he is America’s saviour and calling some of frontrunner Donald Trump’s criticisms “ridiculous”.
The Florida governor wants to be his party’s candidate to challenge Joe Biden in next year’s presidential election.
His key rival for the GOP nomination is former president Mr Trump, who has a big lead in opinion polls and an unbreakable grip on the party, according to some commentators.
At his first event as a candidate, Mr DeSantis, 44, told around 500 people at an evangelical Christian church in Iowa on Tuesday the US is “going in the wrong direction. We can see it and we can feel it.”
His clearest criticisms of the frontrunner came when speaking to reporters afterwards.
Promising to “fight back” against the former president, he rubbished Mr Trump’s suggestion that New York’s pandemic response was better than Florida’s, calling it “detached from reality.
“That criticism is ridiculous. But it is an indication that the former president would double down on his lockdowns.
“When we disagreed [while Mr Trump was president], I never bashed him publicly because he was taking all this incoming from the media, the left, and even some Republicans.
“And the whole collusion was a total farce. And he was treated very, very poorly. And that bothered me, and it still bothers me to be honest.
“So, I never really would air those disagreements. Well, now he’s attacking me over some of these disagreements, but I think he’s doing it in a way that the voters are going to side with me.”
Ron DeSantis as American president is exciting for some, but frightening for others
The controversial Florida governor taking on Mickey Mouse and Donald Trump
The governor’s appearance came six days after a stumbling online announcement to launch his bid.
Mr DeSantis becomes the latest in a crowded Republican contest to decide whether the party will move on from Trump in 2024 as it aims to retake the White House from Democrat Joe Biden.
Those already in the GOP field include Trump, former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley, South Carolina senator Tim Scott, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy and former Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson.
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Sometimes described as “Trump without the chaos”, Mr DeSantis has nicknamed Florida “the place where woke
goes to die” and taken on the Disney Corporation after it opposed a state law banning classroom lessons on sexual orientation and gender identity in early years.
Mr DeSantis’ campaign funds could increase by up to $80m (£64,724m) after a department in his own administration changed state rules, NBC said.
A state-level political committee Mr DeSantis led for the past five years, known as Friends of Ron DeSantis, is widely expected to transfer the sum to a federal super PAC called Never Back Down backing his bid for president.
The change overturns at least five years of state election rules, NBC said.
Prince Harry: US court to hear challenge over Duke of Sussex’s visa following drug revelations
A federal judge will hear an appeal from a conservative think tank to unseal Prince Harry’s US immigration records following revelations in his book that he took drugs.
Nile Gardner, of the Heritage Foundation, tweeted on Tuesday a hearing on his organisation’s suit will be heard on 6 June.
He wrote that the “Prince Harry immigration records case will be held in Washington, DC Federal Court in front of a US Federal Judge”.
He also announced the proceedings will be open to the press.
Past drug use can be grounds to deny a visa application for the US.
The Heritage Foundation is trying to discover if the revelations in the Duke of Sussex’s memoirs Spare were documented in his visa application.
In the book, it was revealed Harry had taken cocaine, smoked marijuana and tried magic mushrooms.
It comes amid an ongoing High Court trial involving the duke, in which he is bringing a contested claim against Mirror Group Newspapers (MGN) over allegations of unlawful information gathering.
He is also awaiting rulings over whether similar cases against Daily Mail publisher Associated Newspapers Limited (ANL), and News Group Newspapers (NGN) – which publishes The Sun – can go ahead.
A judgment is also expected in the duke’s libel claim against ANL over an article on his case against the Home Office.
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