Department of Justice Spokesperson Brian Fallon is being accused of trying to "silence the press with an effective threat" after an unfriendly email exchange between him and a USA Today reporter was published online Thursday.
As seen in the email chain, investigative reporter Brad Heath presses Fallon for information on a report he wrote on the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. The reporter had apparently filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request and was seeking information about why the DOJ didn't address judges' concerns about the NSA's broad scope of surveillance power.
"If you have answers to my questions, please share them. If not, I don’t see that we have any alternative but to write what we have been told. Please let me know by noon," Heath wrote.
Fallon sent a brief and cold response: "I'm done negotiating. Go forward if you want, and I will work with someone else afterwards explaining why what you reported is off base."
Heath argued he was not trying to "negotiate," but rather get "answers to basic questions."
The DOJ official then flat-out denied Heath's request for information based on an assumption that he was not "open-minded" enough to present the story in the appropriate way -- as seen fit by the DOJ apparently.
"You are not actually open-minded to the idea of not writing the story. You are running it regardless," Fallon replied. "I have information that undercuts your premise, and would provide it if I thought you were able to be convinced that your story is off base."
He continued: "Instead, I think that to provide it to you would just allow you to cover your bases, and factor it into a story you still plan to write. So I prefer to hold onto the information and use it after the fact, with a different outlet that is more objective about whether an OPR inquiry was appropriate."
Again, Heath said he was focused on getting the story right. He even asked for Fallon to inform him how his "premise" is incorrect.
"I asked these questions – and waited for answers – because I’m interested in the answers," the USA Today reporter wrote. "You can’t seriously ask me not to publish something on the basis of information you won’t share."
Read the entire email exchange here.
As the Huffington Post points out, Tech Dirt referred to Fallon's comments as a "clear move by the DOJ to try to silence the press with an effective threat." The email exchange was "egregious, desperate flackery" on the DOJ's part, according to the Wall Street Journal's Ted Mann.
Fallon later told Politico of the email exchange:
"For the last several days, we asked Brad to exercise discretion rather than write a story that leaves a false impression that there was any evidence of misconduct or basis for an inquiry. We proposed putting him in touch with people who could independently explain why no inquiry was warranted in hopes it might persuade him. When it became clear he intended to publish his story regardless, there was no point in asking any of those people to reach out."