Attorney General Merrick Garland said Tuesday that private industry needs better safeguards to avoid calamitous consequences in the event of cyberattacks like the ones that have targeted American infrastructure and corporations.
“You have to have a secondary method if your first method is shut down. You have to have depth, and we need to work with them on that," Garland said, a week after a meeting between President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin that included discussion of a spate of Russia-linked ransomware attacks in the last year.
In a wide-ranging question-and-answer session with reporters, his first since being confirmed in March as the country’s chief law enforcement officer, Garland also reiterated his concerns about the death penalty, defended the Justice Department’s position in a defamation case against former President Donald Trump and insisted that the government would work to protect both journalists’ personal safety and their ability to conceal their confidential sources.
The conversation occurred as Garland has faced demands from Democrats to swiftly undo or reverse positions taken by the Justice Department during the Trump administration, including aggressive leak investigations in which law enforcement obtained phone records of journalists and congressional officials. The Justice Department inspector general is now investigating, and Garland met last week with executives from news media organizations.
Garland, who has made several major announcements during his tenure but taken no questions before Tuesday, did not reveal any new details about how those subpoenas were authorized and did not answer when asked when he had learned about the issue. But he said it was clear that the balance the department had sought for decades to strike between journalists' First Amendment rights and safeguarding the disclosure of classified information is “not sufficient for your protection.”
He said he believed journalists need sources to expose wrongdoing and bad decision-making and "I'm going to do everything I can to help protect you” from being forced to reveal those contacts.
Garland also defended the Justice Department's decision to maintain its position, first argued last year, that Trump cannot be held personally liable for “crude and disrespectful” remarks he made about a woman who accused him of rape because he made the comments while he was president.
Democrats had looked to that case as one place where Garland's Justice Department might make a dramatic shift, but Garland said the case law that government lawyers had reviewed tilted in favor of the argument that defamatory statements made to the news media by a public official are protected by law.
“The question for us, though, is really a question of law, unrelated to how we feel about” Trump's statements, Garland said. “We don't have one rule for Republicans and one rule for Democrats, one rule for a former president, one rule for the current president.”
He was noncommittal on Democratic calls for an investigation into the potential politicization of decisions made in the Trump Justice Department, saying he did not want career officials to feel unnecessarily second-guessed by political appointees.
Garland also said he has deep reservations about the death penalty, in part because of the disparate impact the punishment has had on minority communities, and would make a more extensive statement soon. The Trump administration revived the death penalty last year after a 17-year hiatus in federal executions.
Though activists widely expected Biden to take swift action against the death penalty as the first sitting president to oppose capital punishment, the White House has been mostly silent.