U.S. government bans reporters’ call history… Is airlifting legal?


On the 18th, I wrote a report file that fact-checked the controversy over the inquiry into civilian communications data by the Air Airborne Service. To summarize the contents:

“The act of inquiring communication data, that is, an investigation agency inquiring personal information of a person who uses a number to call an investigation target through a telecommunication company, may be seen as a follow-up to old investigation practices. Received data confirming the reporter’s communications in order to understand the reporter’s coverage, that is, inquiring the call history, is a serious matter that deserves criticism as a journalist’s inspection.”

“Sorry” only in ‘custom’… Avoid mentioning ‘call history inquiry’

However, the Ministry of Air Transport expressed regret over the controversy over the communication data inquiry a day before Christmas in 2021, but did not mention the inquiry about the call history of the reporter who wrote the critical article. We only expressed our regret for the fact that we “followed” the investigation practice of extensively collecting the personal information of the person who spoke with the investigation target and expressed our intention to improve the system. He expressed his regret only for the passages that could be excused as problems with customs or systems, and kept his mouth shut on the more serious problem of ‘journalists’ inspection’.

So, is it really a serious problem for an investigative agency such as the Air Traffic Control Service to inquire about a reporter’s call history? Inquiry of call history by investigative agencies is an act that is performed with the permission of the court in the form of a so-called ‘communication warrant,’ so isn’t it a legal investigation method? It’s an act that is routinely done even with civilians other than journalists, isn’t it overly sensitive?

It’s not like that. In the end, the government or investigative agencies identify the communication details of journalists who wrote articles that are unfavorable to them in order to find sources of critical articles. If such a thing is publicly allowed, the media’s right to confidentiality of reporters (the right to protect the identity of reporters privately) will be nullified, and criticism of the authorities with investigative powers or those in power with investigative powers against those with investigative powers is extremely high. leads to atrophy as a result. This is the reason why the act of mobilizing investigative powers to search for reporters’ sources in the name of investigating the so-called public secret leak is a problem.

The U.S. government bans all inquiry-related call history inquiries

Interestingly, not long ago in the United States, it became a problem for investigative agencies to understand the call history of reporters. The way the U.S. government responded at that time, and the policy changes that followed, show how serious it is for the Air Service to scour reporters’ phone calls to understand the background of critical reports.

US Attorney General Merrick Garland
On July 19, 2021, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland issued a policy memo. The memo, also published on the US Department of Justice website, corresponds to Garland’s notice of the Department’s new policy to federal prosecutors across the country. The title was “USE OF COMPULSORY PROCESS TO OBTAIN INFORMATION FROM, OR RECORDS OF, MEMBERS OF NEWS MEDIA”. In this memorandum, Garland banned the federal prosecutors from obtaining warrants for journalists-related records or information, including phone calls.

An official letter in the name of the U.S. Attorney General who banned all inquiry into call history related to news gathering

Minister Garland
“A free and independent press is essential for our democracy to function.”While it is important to prevent national security from being threatened by unauthorized disclosure, it is also in the “national interest” to protect journalists from being compelled to disclose sources. And then Minister Garland
“The Department of Justice will no longer use compulsory legal process for the purpose of obtaining information from or records. of members of the news media acting within the scope of news-gathering activities.)”declared.

This means that not only will the federal prosecutors obtain a subpoena to ban reporters from obtaining cell phones and report notes, but they will also ban the act of inquiring reporters’ calls, e-mails, and mobile messenger use through telecommunication companies. no see. Minister Garland states that, when a reporter is suspected of a crime not related to coverage, such as insider trading, the information can be verified through a compulsory investigation, but at the same time
“The prohibition does apply when a member of the news media has, in the course of newsgathering, only possessed or published government information, including classified information.)”I am nailing it.

President Biden: ‘Absolutely, absolutely wrong’

Why did the US Department of Justice announce this policy? This is because it was revealed that in 2017, during the Trump administration, the U.S. federal prosecutor received a subpoena to search the New York Times, Washington Post, and CNN reporters’ phone records for investigation into allegations of leaking official secrets. After this fact was exposed, President Biden was asked on May 22, ‘Will the Biden administration also conduct inquiries about reporters’ phone records?’ President Biden
“Absolutely, clearly wrong. Really, really, wrong. I will not let this happen. (Absolutely, positively — it’s wrong. It’s simply, simply wrong. I will not let that happen.)”answered. And two months later, Justice Minister Garland officially announced a policy that bans the inquiry of reporters’ call history.

CNN reporter tweeted a video of President Biden's remarks

If you look at this case, you can see that just a few years ago in the United States, investigative agencies secretly inquired about reporters’ phone calls with warrants for investigation into allegations of leaking official secrets. But when the truth was revealed – as it must have been during the previous president – even the president stepped forward, quickly admitted his mistake and promised to take measures to prevent a recurrence. The Minister of Justice even announced in an official letter a policy that bans reporters from inquiring their call history. If so, should the act of the Air Service to inquire about the call details of a reporter who wrote a critical article on the grounds of investigating the alleged leak of official secrets is a common occurrence in the United States, or should it be regarded as a grave mistake in the United States that even the president has banned it, saying it is against “national interest”? Should it be evaluated as a prescribed act?

‘Reporter call history inquiry’ became a problem in Korea

In the United States, where freedom of expression is valued, investigative agencies may regard it as a serious matter for investigative agencies to inquire about journalists’ phone records to find sources, but it is customary in our country’s investigative agencies. Some of you may be thinking. Of course, in the past, there have been cases where investigative agencies inquired about the reporter’s call history in order to identify the reporter’s source who reported the critical article. However, even though it was revealed that the investigative agency’s call history inquiry was revealed to find out the source, there were few cases where it was not a problem.

In 2003, there was a case in which the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office of the Prosecutor’s Office inquired the call details of several reporters, claiming that investigation secrets were leaked during the Hyundai and SK slush fund investigations. However, when this fact was reported, then Prosecutor General Song Kwang-soo and Heavy Water Department Ahn Dae-hee officially apologized and promised to prevent a recurrence. In 2013, during the Lee Myung-bak administration, when the then-Secretary of the Blue House sued a reporter of Sisa Journal for defamation, the police inquired the reporter’s call history to find the reporter. Criticism of the investigation as unreasonable suppressing press freedom was also poured out. Relatively recently, in 2018, the Changwon District Prosecutor’s Office inquired a Yonhap News reporter’s call history to find a source saying that a complaint had been received on the charge of revealing the facts of the suspect. The Busan Ulsan Gyeongnam Regional Council and the Gyeongnam Democratic Press Citizens’ Coalition, which are classified as progressive groups, issued statements strongly criticizing the prosecution.

According to the TV Chosun report, the Airborne Service seems to have inquired the call history of at least two of the reporters related to ‘the CCTV report of the investigation into the emperor Lee Seong-yun’. The ‘CCTV report on the investigation into the investigation of Emperor Lee Seong-yun’ is a report that decisively destroyed the trust in the Airborne Service. It was probably one of the most painful knights of the Airlift. Can the Air Traffic Service justify the use of investigative powers (or internal investigative powers) to search the reporter’s call history in order to find the source of this article?

Suspicion of ‘journalists inspectorate’ borrowing a legal form

Kim Jin-wook, Director General of Airlift
The Ministry of Public Investigation said that the target of the investigation was not a TV Chosun reporter, but ‘the Suwon Prosecutor with an unknown identity suspected of handing over CCTV-related information to TV Chosun reporter Lee Seong-yoon’. It claims that it is legal to inquire about call details after receiving a communication warrant. However, this is in stark contrast to U.S. Department of Justice policy, which forbids viewing the call logs of journalists who reported confidential information, rather than officials accused of leaking secrets. What President Biden called “absolutely and clearly wrong”.

The conduct of the Airborne Service can only be interpreted as an investigation into the circumstances of the journalist’s coverage by taking the form of an internal investigation into an ‘unidentified prosecutor’. This is why the suspicion of ‘journalists inspecting’ is rising. Moreover, considering that eight months have passed since April, when the Ministry of Airborne Affairs said that it was the time when the internal investigation began, no facts related to the suspicion of leaks by the Suwon District Prosecutor’s Office were confirmed. We cannot rule out the possibility that ‘intelligence’ itself was an inflated or even fabricated story from the beginning.
If ‘intelligence’ was not credible from the beginning, and based on this, an internal investigation was initiated and the reporter’s call history was inquired to understand the background of the critical article’s coverage. There is also the possibility of an abuse of power for one purpose, that is, a charge of abuse of power.

For the act of inquiring about the call history that has already been revealed, the airlifter should apologize and promise to prevent recurrence. In addition, it is also necessary to explain whether the ‘information of the Suwon Prosecutor’s Office of an unknown divulgence of official secrets’ suggested by the Ministry of Public Security as the basis for the legal act actually existed and to what extent it had credibility. However, the Ministry of Air Transport only expressed “regret” for the telecommunication company subscriber information inquiry (communication data inquiry), which is easier to defend than the call history inquiry, and only announced that it would find a way to prevent recurrence by involving external personnel.

Charged with abuse of power… Prosecutors are silent now

Prosecutor's Office/Public Investigation Office
When the Air Traffic Service bill was discussed in the National Assembly, those in favor of introducing the Air Traffic Service argued that ‘checks and balances between investigative agencies will be achieved because the Public Service Department can investigate what the prosecution did wrong and the prosecution can investigate what the Air Traffic Service did wrong.’ However, few trust that the prosecution, which is controlled by the Minister of Justice and the Prosecutor General, appointed by the current government that launched the Airborne Service, will be able to freely and independently investigate allegations of corruption. A complaint was received at the Anyang branch in June that the internal investigation of the Airborne Service related to a TV Chosun reporter was an abuse of power, but the Anyang branch has not shown any significant action so far.

However, the political situation is always subject to change, and depending on the situation, there is a possibility that the Ministry of Justice or the Prosecutor’s Office will actively investigate the Airborne Service. According to the ‘checks and balances’ principle advocated by the proponents of the air transport service when it was introduced. In that case, there is a possibility that the case of inquiry of the reporter’s call history by the Ministry of Public Security will be the subject of priority investigation. Now that the suspicions are growing, if the Airlift Service remains silent.

I have criticized the public prosecutors and the public prosecutor’s office from the time the law was discussed in the National Assembly, and it was a bad design that made both agencies vulnerable to political change to have the prosecutors and the agency check each other by mobilizing their respective investigative powers. This is because, when the political situation is favorable to the airborne agency, the agency investigates the prosecution unilaterally, and when the situation is favorable to the prosecution, the prosecution tends to investigate as if it suppressed the agency. In order to prevent such a thing from really happening in reality, I hope that the Airlift Service will come up with a convincing explanation for this allegation before it’s too late.

– References –

Link to the original policy memo from U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland banning journalists from viewing call histories



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *