Since July 17, 2020, I have been bound by a gag order or a sealing order that prohibited me from discussing, or even acknowledging, that the government was seeking to compel the disclosure of the professional email communications of CNN reporter Barbara Starr.
That day, through our parent company WarnerMedia, I received a secret order issued by a federal magistrate judge in the Eastern District of Virginia. That court, based on an ex parte submission approved by the William Barr-led Justice Department, had ruled that CNN must produce all of Ms. Starr's email headers from a two-month period in 2017.
We immediately retained outside counsel to challenge the order. I was informed that, other than conferring with counsel, the order prohibited me from acknowledging to anyone that it even existed unless I had express permission from the Department of Justice.
I was told in no uncertain terms (multiple times) that I was forbidden from communicating about any aspect of the order or these proceedings to the journalist whose interests I am duty-bound to protect, Barbara Starr. And I was further informed that if I violated the order, I was subject to charges of contempt and even criminal prosecution for obstruction of justice.
I was aware that such secret orders were used by DOJ on matters of national security. However, in the 20 years I have been at CNN, we have never been subject to one. That is likely because the law and existing DOJ regulations establish (at least on paper) a very high bar for such an order to be issued directly against a media organization. Advance notice is typically required. The government is required to show "negotiations with the affected member of the news media [and] appropriate notice to the affected member of the news media, unless the Attorney General determines that, for compelling reasons, such negotiations or notice would pose a clear and substantial threat to the integrity of the investigation, risk grave harm to national security, or present an imminent risk of death or serious bodily harm," according to Justice Department regulations.
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