The letter this week disclosing the seizure of phone records involving the Times reporters — Matt Apuzzo, Adam Goldman, Eric Lichtblau and Michael S. Schmidt — had hinted at the existence of the separate fight over data that would show whom they had been in contact with over email.
The letters said the government had also acquired a court order to seize logs of their emails, but “no records were obtained,” providing no further details. But with the lifting of the gag order, Mr. McCraw said he had been freed to explain what had happened.
Prosecutors in the office of the United States attorney in Washington had obtained a sealed court order from a magistrate judge on Jan. 5 requiring Google to secretly turn over the information. But Google resisted, apparently demanding that The Times be told, as its contract with the company requires.
The Justice Department continued to press the request after the Biden administration took over, but in early March prosecutors relented and asked a judge to permit telling Mr. McCraw. But the disclosure to him came with a nondisclosure order preventing him from talking about it to other people.
Mr. McCraw said it was “stunning” to receive an email from Google telling him what was going on. At first, he said, he did not know who the prosecutor was, and because the matter was sealed, there were no court documents he could access about it.
The next day, Mr. McCraw said, he was told the name of the prosecutor — a career assistant United States attorney in Washington, Tejpal Chawla — and opened negotiations with him. Eventually, Mr. Chawla agreed to ask the judge to modify the gag order so Mr. McCraw could discuss the matter with The Times’s general counsel and the company’s outside lawyers, and then with two senior Times executives: A.G. Sulzberger, the publisher, and Meredith Kopit Levien, the chief executive.
“We made clear that we intended to go to court to challenge the order if it was not withdrawn,” Mr. McCraw said. Then, on June 2, he said, the Justice Department told him it would ask the court to quash the order to Google at the same time that it disclosed the earlier phone records seizure, which he had not known about.