'Direct attack on the First Amendment': Trump DOJ hammered for secretly obtaining journalists' phone records

Advocates for press freedom responded with outrage after the Washington Post reported Friday that former President Donald Trump's Justice Department secretly obtained the phone records and attempted to obtain the email records of three Post journalists who covered Russia's interference in the 2016 presidential election.

According to the newspaper, Post reporters Ellen Nakashima and Greg Miller and former Post reporter Adam Entous all received letters from the Justice Department earlier this week alerting them that "pursuant to [a] legal process" that reportedly took place in 2020, the DOJ had acquired "toll records associated with" the three journalists' work, home, or cell phone numbers between April 15, 2017 and July 31, 2017.

"We are deeply troubled by this use of government power to seek access to the communications of journalists," said Cameron Barr, the acting executive editor of the Post. "The Department of Justice should immediately make clear its reasons for this intrusion into the activities of reporters doing their jobs, an activity protected under the First Amendment."

The records taken include the numbers, times, and duration of every call made to and from the targeted phones between mid-April and late July 2017, but do not include what was said, the newspaper reported. DOJ officials also obtained, but did not execute, a court order to access the reporters' work email accounts. Those records would have indicated the dates and addresses of emails sent to and from the journalists during that three and a half month period.

"The letter does not state the purpose of the phone records seizure, but toward the end of the time period mentioned in the letters, those reporters wrote a story about classified U.S. intelligence intercepts indicating that in 2016, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) had discussed the Trump campaign with Sergey Kislyak, who was Russia's ambassador to the United States," the Post noted.

According to the Post:

Justice Department officials would not say if that reporting was the reason for the search of journalists' phone records. Sessions subsequently became President Donald Trump's first attorney general and was at the Justice Department when the article appeared...
It is rare for the Justice Department to use subpoenas to get records of reporters in leak investigations, and such moves must be approved by the attorney general. The letters do not say precisely when the reporters' records were taken and reviewed, but a department spokesman said the decision to do so came in 2020, during the Trump administration. William P. Barr, who served as Trump's attorney general for nearly all of that year, before departing Dec. 23, declined to comment.

Officials in President Joe Biden's Justice Department, tasked with notifying the reporters about records that were obtained during the Trump administration, tried to justify the collection of journalists' phone records, claiming that it was part of what department spokesperson Marc Raimondi called "a criminal investigation into unauthorized disclosure of classified information."

"The targets of these investigations are not the news media recipients but rather those with access to the national defense information who provided it to the media and thus failed to protect it as lawfully required," said Raimondi.

First Amendment advocates were highly critical of the DOJ's decision to seize journalists' communications records in an attempt to identify the sources of leaks, saying the practice dissuades citizens from sharing information that can help reveal the truth, hold the powerful accountable, and improve the common good.

"This never should have happened," the American Civil Liberties Union tweeted. "When the government spies on journalists and their sources, it jeopardizes freedom of the press."

The Post noted that "both the Trump and Obama administrations escalated efforts to stop leaks and prosecute government officials who disclose secrets to reporters."

As the newspaper explained:

During the Obama administration, the department prosecuted nine leak cases, more than all previous administrations combined. In one case, prosecutors called a reporter a criminal "co-conspirator" and secretly went after journalists' phone records in a bid to identify reporters' sources. Prosecutors also sought to compel a reporter to testify and identify a source, though they ultimately backed down from that effort.
In response to criticism about such tactics, in 2015, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. issued updates to the rules about media leak investigations aimed at creating new internal checks on how often and how aggressively prosecutors seek reporters' records.
In response to Trump's concerns, Sessions and others discussed changing the rules to seek journalists' phone records earlier in leak investigations, but the regulations were never changed.

However, "in early August 2017—days after the time period covered by the search of the Post reporters' phone records—Sessions held a news conference to announce an intensified effort to hunt and prosecute leakers in government," the Post noted.

Bruce Brown, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, called on the Justice Department to explain "exactly when prosecutors seized these records, why it is only now notifying the Post, and on what basis the Justice Department decided to forgo the presumption of advance notification under its own guidelines when the investigation apparently involves reporting over three years in the past."

Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.), meanwhile, described the seizure of the three Post journalists' phone records as "a direct attack on the First Amendment by the Trump Justice Department."

"Anyone who was involved in this authoritarian style intimidation and is still at the Justice Department should be fired," the lawmaker said, adding that "history... is not going to be kind to Bill Barr."

After being cut off by GOP senator, Stacey Abrams releases 6-minute rundown of Georgia's attack on voting

One week after Republican Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana repeatedly cut off voting rights advocate Stacey Abrams as she tried to explain her objections to the voter suppression law recently passed by GOP lawmakers in Georgia, Abrams on Tuesday shared an uninterrupted video in which she outlined how specific provisions of Senate Bill 202 restrict Democratic-leaning constituencies' access to the ballot.

During a U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee hearing last week on voting rights, Kennedy asked Abrams to "give me a list of the provisions that you object to."

Abrams began to list several anti-democratic components of the new law. She expressed her opposition to provisions that: remove access to the right to vote; shorten the federal runoff period from nine weeks to four weeks; and restrict the time that a voter can request and return an absentee ballot application—before being interrupted by Kennedy.

She went on to mention that the law "eliminates over 300 hours of drop box availability" and "bans nearly all out-of-precinct votes." In addition, Abrams noted, enabling counties to adopt a 9:00 am to 5:00 pm voting window instead of using the previous statewide standard of 7:00 am to 7:00 pm limits the franchise, especially for working-class individuals "who cannot vote during business hours."

After just a couple of minutes, Kennedy "threw in the towel," as political reporter Greg Bluestein put it in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

"Okay, I get the idea. I get the idea," said the Republican senator.

But Abrams, the founder of a voting rights group called Fair Fight Action, hadn't finished.

On Tuesday, Abrams tweeted a nearly six-minute video that describes additional provisions that she and other progressive critics of Senate Bill 202 say will make it harder for Georgians—particularly those living in communities of color where Democratic candidates enjoy much stronger support than their Republican counterparts—to vote.

"I know we got cut off before, so let me continue," she began on Tuesday.

In the video, Abrams provides a thorough account of the anti-democratic features of the new Georgia law, which she says:

  • criminalizes the distribution of water or food to voters waiting in long lines;
  • "codifies voter caging, meaning that an individual can challenge the eligibility of an unlimited number of voters in their county";
  • removes Georgia's secretary of state from the state's board of elections;
  • authorizes the state Legislature to appoint a majority of members on the state's board of elections, "stacking it with their allies";
  • allows the state's board of elections to unilaterally replace local election officials;
  • limits the number and location of ballot drop boxes;
  • requires voters without a driver's license or state ID to "surrender their personal information and risk identity theft just to receive an absentee ballot";
  • reduces the time frame to request an absentee ballot by 109 days and stops the request period 11 days before the election;
  • bans mobile voting units used by 11,000 elderly and disabled voters last year in Fulton County;
  • sets a new minimum standard of just eight hours for early voting;
  • prohibits early voting locations from operating outside of specific hours; and
  • "eliminates the online absentee ballot request portal, forcing county boards to manually enter every application."

The new video also has clips from Abrams' interaction with Kennedy last week, including when the senator asked, "Is that everything?"

"Nope!" Abrams responded Tuesday. "With all due respect, I'm not done yet, senator."

Abrams pointed out that GOP lawmakers attempted to include even more restrictive measures in earlier versions of Senate Bill 202.

"Let's not forget that Republicans wanted to eliminate Sunday voting, but we stopped them," Abrams said. "And Republicans wanted to eliminate no excuses absentee voting, but we stopped them. And Republicans wanted to eliminate automatic voter registration."

"But, wait for it, we stopped them," she added.

Senate Bill 202—which Georgia's Republican lawmakers and Gov. Brian Kemp have characterized as an attempt to "restore confidence in the integrity of the state's electoral system"—is part of the GOP's nationwide attack on voting. As of March 24, legislators had introduced 361 bills with restrictive provisions in 47 states, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.

In addition to Georgia, voter suppression bills have been signed into law in Arkansas, Florida, Iowa, and Utah.

Mother Jones journalist Ari Berman, a voting rights expert, has argued that in the wake of former President Donald Trump's failed attempt to reverse the outcome of the 2020 presidential election, state-level Republicans are "weaponizing Trump's lies" about fraud in an attempt to roll back voting rights following last year's historic turnout.

While the GOP has attempted to justify its increasingly extreme voter suppression push by appealing to the need to strengthen "election integrity"—even though President Joe Biden's victory came in an election the federal government's top cybersecurity official called "the most secure in American history"—right-wing figures have on more than one occasion admitted the real reason they are opposed to making voting more accessible is because doing so hurts Republicans' electoral chances.

"If we don't do something about voting by mail, we're going to lose the ability to elect a Republican in this country," Trump ally Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told Fox News host Sean Hannity last November.

In Tuesday's video, meanwhile, Abrams noted that "in Fulton County, our largest county and one that is predominantly African American, the number of drop boxes will be reduced from 38 to eight for no good reason other than Republicans want to make it harder for people of color to vote."

Last month, Biden signed an executive order promoting access to the polls, while House Democrats, without the support of a single Republican, passed the For the People Act, a sweeping set of popular pro-democracy reforms.

Voting rights advocates say that Senate Democrats can "thwart virtually every single one" of the GOP's voter suppression bills by passing the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. If Senate Republicans try to stand in the way, progressives say, the Democratic-led Congress will need to eliminate the 60-vote filibuster rule.

Study reveals rapid melting of glaciers has shifted earth's axis

Since 1980, the planet's north and south poles have moved roughly four meters in distance, and new research shows that shifts in the Earth's rotational axis have accelerated since the 1990s as a result of the widespread melting of glaciers—a clear manifestation, scientists say, of the climate emergency.

"Faster ice melting under global warming was the most likely cause of the directional change of the polar drift in the 1990s," Shanshan Deng—a researcher from the Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research at the Chinese Academy of Sciencestold the American Geophysical Union (AGU) Thursday.

In a study published last month in the peer-reviewed journal Geophysical Research Letter, Deng and her co-authors found that changes in terrestrial water storage—particularly the accelerated loss of water stored on land due to melting glaciers—redistributed enough of the world's mass to drive "the rapid polar drift toward the east after the 1990s."

As The Guardian explained Friday:

The planet's geographic north and south poles are the point where its axis of rotation intersects the surface, but they are not fixed. Changes in how the Earth's mass is distributed around the planet cause the axis, and therefore the poles, to move.
In the past, only natural factors such as ocean currents and the convection of hot rock in the deep Earth contributed to the drifting position of the poles. But the new research shows that since the 1990s, the loss of hundreds of billions of tons of ice a year into the oceans resulting from the climate crisis has caused the poles to move in new directions.
The scientists found the direction of polar drift shifted from southward to eastward in 1995 and that the average speed of drift from 1995 to 2020 was 17 times faster than from 1981 to 1995.

The AGU noted that "researchers have been able to determine the causes of polar drifts starting from 2002 based on data from the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE), a joint mission by NASA and the German Aerospace Center, launched with twin satellites that year and a follow-up mission in 2018."

Data from the GRACE satellites has enabled scientists to "link glacial melting to movements of the pole in 2005 and 2012, both following increases in ice losses," The Guardian reported. "But Deng's research breaks new ground by extending the link to before the satellite's launch, showing human activities have been shifting the poles since the 1990s, almost three decades ago."

While Deng's team showed that the accelerated decline in water stored on land stemming from glacial losses "is the main driver" of polar drift since the 1990s, the researchers wrote that groundwater depletion in non-glacial regions has also contributed to the movements.

"Groundwater is stored under land but, once pumped up for drinking or agriculture, most eventually flows to sea, redistributing its weight around the world," The Guardian noted. "In the past 50 years, humanity has removed 18 trillion tons of water from deep underground reservoirs without it being replaced."

Vincent Humphrey, a climate scientist at the University of Zurich who was not involved in the study, told AGU that the new research "tells you how strong this mass change is—it's so big that it can change the axis of the Earth."

This shift in the Earth's axis, however, is too small to affect daily life, Humphrey added. It could change the length of day, but only by milliseconds.

Nonetheless, other climate experts such as Jonathan Overpeck of the University of Arizona, have said before that the mere fact that the climate crisis is driving polar movements demonstrates "how real and profoundly large an impact humans are having on the planet."

Biden wins cheers after sending the strongest signal yet that he's willing to play hardball

President Joe Biden was praised by progressives on Thursday after reiterating his support for returning to the talking filibuster and indicating for the first time that he is willing to go further, if necessary, to overhaul the archaic and undemocratic 60-vote rule that gives the minority party in a narrowly divided Senate considerable power to kill legislation.

During his first press conference as president, Biden noted that there were 58 filibusters between 1917 and 1971, when senators who wished to block bills were required to hold the floor and speak continuously "until you collapsed."

"Last year alone, there were five times that many," the president said. "So it's being abused in a gigantic way."

Joining a growing number of Democratic senators who support significantly weakening or outright abolishing the filibuster, Biden said last week that the modern filibuster—which can be deployed via email—has produced so much obstruction that "democracy is having a hard time functioning" and expressed his desire to bring back the talking filibuster, a significant departure from the current no-show version.

On Thursday, the president again advocated for reviving the talking filibuster. But he also added that he would have "an open mind about dealing with certain things that are just elemental to the functioning of our democracy, like the right to vote."

Those remarks were an apparent reference to overcoming the GOP's nationwide voter suppression push and corresponding opposition to the For the People Act, a popular and comprehensive set of pro-democracy reforms that passed the House earlier this month without Republican support and was introduced last week in the Senate.

Regarding his willingness to reform the filibuster to achieve his legislative goals, Biden told reporters:

I want to get things done... consistent with what we promised the American people. And in order to do that, in a 50/50 Senate, we've got to get to the place where I get 50 votes, so that the vice president of the United States can break the tie, or I get 51 votes without her.
We're going to get a lot done. And if we have to, if there's complete lockdown and chaos as a consequence of the filibuster, then we'll have to go beyond what I'm talking about.

In response to Biden's strongest endorsement to date of filibuster reform, Battle Born Collective executive director Adam Jentleson, who previously served as a staffer for former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), applauded the president in a statement.

"President Biden is refusing to let a Jim Crow relic block the results he promised to deliver. He is making clear that he knows he can be a transformational president on par with FDR if—and only if—he ends or reforms the filibuster," said Jentleson. "To achieve the goals he has identified, filibuster reform must succeed in actually breaking Washington gridlock, and allowing the public business to move forward."

The president's statement of his willingness to "go beyond" a return to the talking filibuster came after weeks of warnings from progressive advocacy groups and lawmakers that much of the Democratic agenda—including a major expansion of voting rights, sweeping labor law reform, and climate action—is destined to languish in the Senate's legislative graveyard as long as the 60-vote rule remains in place.

Jentleson called Biden's comments Thursday "an unmistakable signal that he is willing to do what it takes to end gridlock and deliver results."

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