In the latest surreal and brazen example of federal government overreach, the FBI is demanding that USA Today turn over the IP addresses of all individuals who accessed a public online article during a specific time period.
The subpoena was issued in April but is only in recent days being made public after the newspaper's parent company Gannett sought to fight it in court. It's being widely condemned as an outrageous instance of abuse not only of press freedom, but of the public's right to access information and media as well as breach of both the 1st and 4th Amendments. Underscoring this, WikiLeaks was among the first to highlight the case which seeks to sweep up info on all individuals who accessed the article in question during a 35-minute window on February 2nd, 2021.
A statement given from USA Today to The Verge said, "We were surprised to receive this subpoena particularly in light of President Biden’s recent statements in support of press freedom. The subpoena is also contrary to the Justice Department’s own guidelines concerning the narrow circumstances in which subpoenas can be issued to the news media."
USA Today's legal team is further seeking to fight the subpoena in order to "protect the important relationship and trust between USA TODAY’s readers and our journalists."
According to the details known about what the FBI is asking and who it could impact, The Verge report details that "The article in question was one published on February 2nd, 2021, about a shootout that occurred when FBI agents tried to execute a search warrant in a child pornography case, resulting in the deaths of two FBI agents and the suspect."
But strangely the suspect written about in the article was already literally dead (reportedly by self-inflicted gunshot wound) significantly before the USA Today article was published.
Here's a snippet of the article in question:
Two FBI agents were killed and three were wounded in a shooting early Tuesday while agents were serving a warrant in a child exploitation case in Florida, according to the FBI. The suspect died of an apparent self-inflicted gun shot wound, a person familiar with the matter said.
Authorities are investigating whether the suspect had cameras rigged at the apartment to provide an outside view of people who might be approaching at the time of the incident, said the source, who is not authorized to comment publicly.
The FBI is essentially asking for a large data dump covering that entire time frame the article was live and the public was accessing it.
In response to the FBI's demand for info that could identify readers of a USA Today story, @rcfp Exec. Director Bruce Brown is calling on DOJ & FBI to explain how officials applied policies that limit when the government can seek records from news outlets. https://t.co/vFEbktBk4K— Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (@rcfp) June 5, 2021
The government has since kept mum on just why it needs the data. There remains the possibility that the FBI is potentially eyeing an accomplice to the crime, or a broader conspiracy, and has knowledge that another suspect or suspects had accessed that particular article.
One of USA Today's attorney's confirmed that the government refused to answer reasonable questions over just why it's essential to be given everyone's IP address who read the article. "Despite these attempts, we never received any substantive reply nor any meaningful explanation of the asserted basis for the subpoena," Washington Post quoted the lawyer as saying.
Later over the weekend USA Today announced the following: "The FBI has withdrawn a subpoena demanding records from USA TODAY that would identify readers of a February story about a southern Florida shootout that killed two agents and wounded three others."
But it remains that the FBI's request is somewhat unprecedented and a huge threat to press as well as individual freedom, given that if granted it would mean all citizens could at any time unwittingly be treated as suspects merely for reading an online news article.