Politico

FBI abandons demand for info on readers of story on agent shooting


The FBI has dropped an effort to force the publisher of USA Today to turn over information that could disclose who read one of the newspaper’s online stories about a February shooting incident in Florida that left a suspect and two FBI agents dead, as well as three other agents wounded.

The subpoena issued to USA Today’s parent company, Gannett, in April demanded internet addresses and similar details on readers of the story during a 35-minute window on the evening of the shooting at an apartment complex in Sunrise, Fla., near Fort Lauderdale.

Gannett went to federal court in Washington last week to void the subpoena, arguing that it violated the First Amendment and that the FBI had ignored the Justice Department’s regulations governing efforts to seek information from the news media.

After POLITICO reported on the dispute Thursday, FBI officials had no comment on the episode, but a spokesperson said via email on Saturday that the law enforcement agency was abandoning the demand.

“The subpoena is being withdrawn because intervening investigative developments have rendered it unnecessary,” an FBI spokesperson said.

In a court filing Saturday afternoon, Gannett included an email from a senior Justice Department official that suggested the subpoena was aimed at identifying a suspect in a child exploitation probe, but that person had now been identified in a different way.

“The FBI is withdrawing administrative subpoena no. 690538 because the child sexual exploitation offender subject of the investigation has at this time been identified via other means,” wrote Keith Becker, deputy chief of Justice’s Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section.

An attorney for Gannett, Charles Tobin, welcomed the decision.

“Hopefully, this is a learning moment for the new administration,” said Tobin, who represents POLITICO in unrelated matters. “The guidelines require the FBI to look for all reasonable alternative sources, and obviously that made perfect sense here.”

Word of the subpoena to USA Today emerged as the Justice Department was facing intense scrutiny and criticism for its efforts to seize email and phone records as part of leak investigations. The FBI’s announcement that it was abandoning the subpoena over the shooting article came on the same day DOJ announced it would no longer seek to expose journalists sources by demanding records from news outlets or their service providers.

The FBI statement stressed that the subpoena about the February shooting was not aimed at any newsgathering effort.

“The administrative subpoena was issued in connection with a child exploitation investigation and was limited to subscriber-related information in a narrow time window. It did not seek any communications records of journalists,” the spokesperson said.

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