The FBI is attempting to obtain a list of IP addresses, phone numbers, and other identifying information from people who read a USA Today article about the deaths of two of its agents (via Politico).
The subpoena (PDF) claims to be related to a criminal investigation and requests information from readers who accessed the article within a specific 35-minute timeframe, but it is unclear who or what the Bureau is looking for. USA Today is fighting back against the request for the information, calling it unconstitutional.
“We were taken aback to receive this subpoena, especially given President Biden’s recent statements in support of press freedom.
The subpoena is also in violation of the Justice Department’s own guidelines regarding the limited circumstances under which subpoenas can be issued to the news media,” USA Today publisher Maribel Perez Wadsworth said in an email to The Verge.
The article in question was one published on February 2nd, 2021, about a shootout that occurred when FBI agents attempted to execute a search warrant in a child pornography case, killing two FBI agents and the suspect. An FBI special agent filled out the subpoena, which requests a large amount of information about the devices that accessed the article from 7:03 PM ET to 7:38 PM ET on the evening it was published.
It’s unclear why the request was made, given that the suspect described in the article was reported to be dead by the time the article was published. Whatever the FBI is looking for, USA Today claims in a court filing (PDF) that the request violates the First Amendment, citing a number of previous rulings in which the government was denied access to similar records.
It also claims that the FBI accessing general records of who read a story could chill journalistic efforts — as a Supreme Court Justice cited in the motion put it in 1953, the government asking for this kind of information can make people feel as if someone is reading over their shoulder.
Perez Wadsworth stated in the statement that before fighting the subpoena in court, USA Today’s attorneys attempted to contact the FBI. “Despite these efforts, we never received a substantive response or any meaningful explanation of the asserted basis for the subpoena,” she stated.
“We intend to oppose the subpoena’s request for identifying information on individuals who viewed the USA TODAY news report. Forcing the government to know who reads what on our websites is a clear violation of the First Amendment.”
She went on to say that USA Today has asked the court to overturn the subpoena in order to “protect the critical relationship and trust between USA TODAY’s readers and our journalists.”