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.
Joseph Emerson: Attempted murder charges dropped against pilot who ‘tried to cut plane’s engines’
A former Alaska Airlines pilot accused of trying to cut the engines of a Horizon Air flight will not face charges of attempted murder.
Joseph Emerson has been indicted on 84 endangerment charges – for each person on the plane – and one charge of endangering an aircraft.
He previously pleaded not guilty to attempted murder charges filed by state prosecutors and to a federal charge of interfering with a flight crew.
Prosecutors have accused Emerson, 44, of trying to cut the engines on the 22 October flight from Everett, Washington state, to San Francisco while riding in the extra seat in the cockpit.
The FBI said in an affidavit that after a brief struggle, he left the cockpit and attendants put him in wrist restraints and seated him in the back of the aircraft which was diverted to Portland.
According to charging documents, Emerson told Port of Portland police he had been struggling with depression, that a friend had recently died and that he had taken psychedelic mushrooms about 48 hours before he attempted to cut the engines.
He also said he had not slept in more than 40 hours.
Emerson’s defence lawyers welcomed the grand jury’s decision.
They said: “The attempted murder charges were never appropriate in this case because Captain Emerson never intended to hurt another person or put anyone at risk – he just wanted to return home to his wife and children.
“Simply put: Captain Emerson thought he was in a dream.”
Emerson remains in custody in Multnomah County, Oregon.
Panera Bread’s caffeinated Charged Lemonade drinks blamed for two deaths in US
A highly caffeinated drink sold by US bakery chain Panera Bread has been blamed for two deaths after a second lawsuit was filed on Monday.
Dennis Brown is said to have drunk three Charged Lemonades from a Panera Bread on 9 October before suffering a fatal cardiac arrest on his way home in Florida, according to Sky News’ partner network NBC News.
The 46-year-old did not normally consume energy drinks because he had high blood pressure, according to lawsuit filed this week.
It adds that it is unclear whether Mr Brown, who had had a developmental delay and a mild intellectual disability, knew how much caffeine and sugar was in the drink because it was available in self-serve dispensers “offered side-by-side with all of the store’s non-caffeinated and/or less caffeinated drinks.”
Mr Brown’s cause of death was cardiac arrest due to hypertensive disease, according to a death certificate seen by NBC News.
Panera advertises the beverage as “plant-based an clean with as much caffeine as our dark roast coffee.”
The complaints refer to it as a “dangerous energy drink” and argue that Panera fails to appropriately warn consumers about its caffeine contents.
A large cup, the lawsuits allege, contains 390mg of caffeine – more than the caffeine content of standard cans of Red Bull and Monster energy drinks combined.
In a statement provided to NBC News, Panera expressed its “deep sympathy for Mr Brown’s family” and said it stood by the safety of its products.
“Based on our investigation we believe his unfortunate passing was not caused by one of the company’s products,” it added.
“We view this lawsuit, which was filed by the same law firm as a previous claim, to be equally without merit. Panera stands firmly by the safety of our products.”
The first legal complaint referred to Sarah Katz, who died on 10 September last year after going into cardiac arrest.
The lawsuit filed in October alleges the 21-year-old, who had a heart condition called long QT syndrome type 1, bought a Charged Lemonade from a Panera Bread store in Philadelphia hours before her death.
She did this, it claims, despite the fact she avoided energy drinks at the recommendation of her doctors.
Her roommate and close friend, Victoria Rose Conroy, told NBC News: “She [Ms Katz] was very, very vigilant about what she needed to do to keep herself safe.
“I guarantee if Sarah had known how much caffeine this was, she never would have touched it with a 10-foot pole.”
A Panera spokesperson at the time said: “We were very saddened to learn this morning about the tragic passing of Sarah Katz, and our hearts go out to her family.
“At Panera, we strongly believe in transparency around our ingredients. We will work quickly to thoroughly investigate this matter.”
Texas woman asks court to let her have an abortion
A Texas woman who is 20-weeks pregnant and whose foetus has been diagnosed with a fatal condition has asked a court to allow her to have an abortion.
Texas is one of 13 states that bans abortion at nearly all stages of pregnancy.
Kate Cox recently learned her unborn child is at a high risk of a genetic abnormality called trisomy 18, which typically does not result in a viable pregnancy.
The 31-year-old mother-of-two has started legal proceedings in Austin seeking a temporary restraining order allowing a doctor to perform an abortion without being prosecuted.
Doctors have told Ms Cox her baby is likely to be stillborn or live for a week at most, according to court papers.
The documents also say because she has already had two previous caesarean sections, she would need to have a third one if she continues the pregnancy, which could jeopardise her ability to have more children.
“Yet because of Texas’s abortion bans, Ms Cox’s physicians have informed her that their ‘hands are tied’ and she will have to wait until her baby dies inside her or carry the pregnancy to term, at which point she will be forced to have a third C-section, only to watch her baby suffer until death,” the court papers said.
“Kate Cox needs an abortion, and she needs it now.”
The legal action is believed to be the first time a woman has sought a court order authorising an abortion since the Supreme Court overturned the landmark Roe v Wade 1973 ruling which legalised abortion nationwide.
Although Texas allows exceptions, doctors and women have argued in court this year that the state’s law is so restrictive and vaguely worded that physicians are afraid of providing abortions for fear they could face potential criminal charges.
Ms Cox has urged the court to rule “expeditiously”.
“It is not a matter of if I will have to say goodbye to my baby, but when,” she said in a statement.
“I’m trying to do what is best for my baby and myself, but the state of Texas is making us both suffer.”
In July, several Texas women gave emotional testimony about carrying babies they knew would not survive and doctors unable to offer abortions despite their spiralling conditions.
A judge later ruled the abortion ban in Texas was too restrictive for women with pregnancy complications – but that decision was swiftly put on hold after the state appealed against it.
Molly Duane, Ms Cox’s lawyer who is also a legal representative for the Center for Reproductive Rights, said: “How many people are going through the exact same thing as Kate is right now but are not in a position to file a lawsuit?
“I think that gives you a sense of the scale of the problem that we’re dealing with.”
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