by Aaron Kliegman
Civil libertarians and press freedom advocates have condemned DOJ overreach in Project Veritas case.
Attorney General Merrick Garland is acting like a hypocrite as his Justice Department weaponizes the law to target a media organization critical of the Biden administration, according to the lawyers for a journalist who's been the subject of a sweeping government probe.
"Your Justice Department's outrageous and illegal abuses to journalists critical of the current administration, who lawfully gathered information to report to the public on a matter of public interest, have all occurred on your watch," wrote attorneys Chas Short and Paul Calli, who represent investigative journalist and Project Veritas founder James O'Keefe, in a letter to Garland. "Your DOJ acted in contravention of your sanctimonious pronouncements and in violation of the Privacy Protection Act, DOJ's regulations for obtaining information from the news media, and DOJ directives."
"As a result of your refusal to apply your own 'standards,'" they continued, "prominent journalists, scholars, and media watchdogs have assailed the actions of your DOJ."
The newly penned letter comes as the Justice Department, especially the FBI, continues to be scrutinized for what legal experts have described as the use of unnecessary, strong-arm tactics against political opponents and the weaponization of the federal government against critics of the Biden administration — especially former President Donald Trump and his allies.
However, this criticism has extended beyond the targeting of the 45th president's inner circle to the targeting of the press.
In their letter, Short and Calli noted Garland announced in a July 2021 memo that a "free and independent press is vital to the functioning of our democracy" and therefore his Justice Department "will no longer use compulsory legal process" to obtain records and information from journalists "acting within the scope of newsgathering activities."
Garland also said in his memo that the Justice Department will "examine procedures used to safeguard" journalists' records and information obtained by "compulsory legal process" and develop ways to appropriately return or destroy them.
Despite Garland's memo, however, the Justice Department conducted an investigation that involved raiding O'Keefe's home and seizing nearly 200,000 Project Veritas documents through secret surveillance.
The impetus for the government's probe dates back to September 2020, when sources contacted Project Veritas saying they found a diary belonging to then-presidential candidate Joe Biden's 40-year-old daughter, Ashley Biden, that had been left behind along with other belongings when she moved out of a Delray Beach, Fla. house subsequently occupied by one of the sources.
Over the next month, Project Veritas worked to authenticate the diary, reaching out to Ashley Biden and the Biden campaign, but ultimately decided against publishing its contents. Project Veritas arranged for the diary to be delivered to the Delray Beach police department.
"You and I both know that if the New York Times gained possession of the diary of former President Trump's adult daughter, it would have published it page-by-page for weeks on end, selectively editing the content to publish the most salacious entries in the diary, without regard to the harm it would have done to the person in question," wrote Short and Calli.
Journalists are legally protected by the First Amendment for receiving materials from sources — regardless of how the sources obtained the materials themselves before handing them over to the media.
Still, the FBI seized the electronics of Project Veritas' sources and tried to interview them this past October.
The following month, federal prosecutors obtained and executed warrants for the FBI to raid the homes of O'Keefe and two of his Project Veritas colleagues. Agents seized their electronic devices. They also handcuffed O'Keefe and required him to stand in the public hallway of his apartment building in his underwear, according to court documents.
Then in late March, Calli filed a motion petitioning for his client's property to be returned. The motion revealed that earlier in March, Project Veritas was notified by Microsoft, its electronic communications service provider, that for over a year the government had been secretly seizing and reviewing the media organization's emails and other electronic information through sweeping search warrants under nondisclosure orders.
Microsoft was able to notify Project Veritas of this surveillance only because the Big Tech firm's attorneys resisted government efforts to renew nondisclosure orders and told federal prosecutors that Microsoft would pursue litigation to disclose these matters.
The government tried to keep the electronic surveillance orders hidden even after its investigation became public knowledge and the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, which is presiding over the case, appointed a special master to supervise federal prosecutors' access to Project Veritas' materials.
Through the Microsoft search warrants, which were unsealed in March, the government seized nearly 200,000 Project Veritas emails and other files, many of which were unrelated to the Justice Department's purported reason for initiating the warrants.
O'Keefe's lawyers have accused the FBI and Justice Department of a witch hunt targeting a media organization openly critical of the Biden administration, arguing the government is violating the First Amendment, Fourth Amendment, and the Privacy Protection Act.
In their letter, Short and Calli requested that Garland terminate the investigation into Ashely Biden's diary as it concerns O'Keefe and Project Veritas; order the government to return all seized information and destroy all information in its possession, retaining no copies; and "personally issue a statement denouncing your Justice Department's actions against our clients and accepting responsibility for the violations by the Department of Justice."
The Justice Department didn't respond to a request for comment for this story. However, the department has said in court filings previously reported by Just the News that the government should retain the records it seized because they were obtained through valid legal processes and the government's grand jury investigation remains ongoing.
The department has contended there's probable cause to believe Project Veritas was involved in stealing the diary and transporting it — a claim denied by O'Keefe's legal team and Project Veritas' sources, who have consistently said it was abandoned at the Florida house.
Short and Calli aren't alone in condemning Garland's Justice Department for its treatment of the press.
"I don't personally like Project Veritas at all, but imagine this was a liberal [organization] under Trump," said Trevor Timm, executive director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation. "Not a good precedent."
"This is just beyond belief," said University of Minnesota law professor Jane Kirtley, a former executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (RCFP). "I'm not a big fan of Project Veritas, but this is just over the top. I hope they get a serious reprimand from the court because I think this is just wrong."
The RCFP filed a motion calling on the court overseeing the case to unseal the search warrant materials for the O'Keefe raid. The government has been fighting to keep those materials sealed.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) wrote a letter to the court supporting the RCFP's motion.
"We're troubled by the government's sweeping searches and seizures in this case," ACLU staff attorney Brian Hauss previously told Just the News. "To prevent law enforcement overreach from chilling fundamental First Amendment freedoms, government investigations into press activities must be precisely tailored to specific allegations of criminal conduct. Without knowing more, it appears that the government's searches in this case may not have been appropriately limited."
Hauss also told Just the News that freedom of the press "protects anyone engaged in the dissemination of information to the general public" and that "whatever anyone might think about Project Veritas, they are engaged in press activities."
They added that as journalists are in danger and imprisoned in countries worldwide, the world is watching the U.S. and Garland's lead on protecting a free media at home.
"How on earth can you allow the attack on Project Veritas and its journalists to continue, and avoid being fairly tagged as a partisan, political hypocrite who wields your power in defense of an adult child of the president?" Short and Calli wrote to Garland. "It is for you to decide whether to allow your prosecutors to continue to set dangerous precedent, gut First Amendment protections, and facilitate the decline of a free and independent press, or to put your money where your mouth is, demonstrate that your [July 2021] memorandum was not a petty political ploy aimed at the prior administration, and terminate this abhorrent action that threatens a free and independent press."