Political News

Seizing of Reporter’s Records Is ‘Fundamental Threat,’ Press Groups Say

Posted June 9, 2018 12:52 a.m. EDT

The revelation that federal prosecutors seized years’ worth of email and phone records from a New York Times reporter drew criticism Friday from news organizations and press rights groups, which expressed outrage at the first known instance of the Trump administration’s pursuing the private communications of a journalist.

The Committee to Protect Journalists called the move “a fundamental threat to press freedom.” The Times, in its own statement, called the seizure “an outrageous overreach” and raised concerns about a chilling effect on journalists’ ability to report on the government.

The records were seized from Ali Watkins, a reporter for The Times in Washington, amid a Justice Department investigation into a former high-ranking aide at the Senate Intelligence Committee who was suspected of leaking classified information to reporters.

The aide, James A. Wolfe, 57, who retired last year, was arraigned in federal court Friday on charges of lying to investigators about his contacts with several journalists. He has denied that he gave classified material to journalists, and prosecutors, for now, have charged him only with making false statements to the FBI.

The Justice Department ramped up investigations into journalists and their sources under President Barack Obama, and the Trump administration was widely expected to follow suit. On Friday, President Donald Trump called Wolfe “a very important leaker” and said his arrest “could be a terrific thing.”

“I’m a very big believer in freedom of the press, but I’m also a believer that you cannot leak classified information,” Trump added.

Watkins, 26, joined The Times in December. She and Wolfe had been in a three-year relationship, which drew the attention of prosecutors who were investigating unauthorized leaks from the Senate Intelligence Committee, including articles that Watkins had written for two previous employers, Politico and BuzzFeed News.

In February, Watkins received a letter from the Justice Department informing her that records from two personal email accounts and a phone number had been seized. Obtaining a journalist’s data without permission is considered by First Amendment advocates to be a highly aggressive form of government intrusion.

Watkins, after consulting her lawyer, decided not to disclose the letter to The Times, according to Eileen Murphy, a spokeswoman for the newspaper. Editors learned of the seizure from Watkins on Thursday, as reporters were working on an article about Wolfe’s impending arrest.

“We obviously would have preferred to know, but the real issue here is the government’s intrusion into a reporter’s private communications,” Murphy said. “This should be a grave concern to anyone who cares about an informed citizenry.”

She added that Watkins would remain on her current beat, covering federal law enforcement.

“We support her,” Murphy said.

Watkins disclosed the relationship with Wolfe to The Times after she was hired, and before she started work at the paper on Dec. 18. On Thursday, Watkins told her editors that Wolfe was not a source of classified information for articles she had written during their relationship, which ended last year.

Watkins joined McClatchy Newspapers as an intern in 2013, and became a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize there two years later as part of a reporting team that revealed CIA spying on the Senate Intelligence Committee.

She went on to cover national security matters, including the committee’s work, at The Huffington Post, BuzzFeed and Politico. The records seized by the Justice Department span her time at those news outlets, as well as her undergraduate years at Temple University, when she was a reporting intern in Washington.

Law enforcement officials did not obtain the content of the messages, according to the letter sent to Watkins by the Justice Department, but the information now in their possession — whom Watkins was communicating with, and when — could reveal her contacts. Reporters often rely on the trust of insiders who can offer insight into the workings of government, but often need their identities protected to preserve their livelihoods and, in some sensitive cases, avoid prosecution.

Under Obama, the Justice Department prosecuted more leak cases than all previous administrations combined. Trump’s attorney general, Jeff Sessions, said last year that the Justice Department was pursuing about three times as many leak investigations as were open at the end of the Obama era.

Documents filed in the indictment of Wolfe suggested that prosecutors were especially interested in a scoop by Watkins published in BuzzFeed in April last year. The article revealed that Russian spies had tried to recruit Carter Page, a former Trump adviser, in 2013 — information that had been furnished to the Senate Intelligence Committee.

“I’m not going to comment at all on a reporter’s sources in the middle of an unjustifiable leak hunt,” Ben Smith, the editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed News, said Friday. He added that he was “baffled” by the Justice Department’s aggressive action against Watkins, given that Page had confirmed the information in the article.

Brad Dayspring, a spokesman at Politico, where Watkins worked as a reporter for part of 2017, said that her role at the news outlet was “managed accordingly” after she disclosed to editors her relationship with Wolfe.

When Watkins joined The Times, Wolfe was no longer working at the Intelligence Committee. On Dec. 14, days before her start date, FBI agents approached Watkins and asserted to her that Wolfe had provided her with information; she did not answer their questions. Murphy, the Times spokeswoman, said Watkins had disclosed that conversation with the FBI to her editors at the paper.

Around the same time, according to court documents, Wolfe was also meeting with FBI agents in Washington. Asked by the agents if he had engaged in regular electronic communication with a reporter, he answered no.

Presented with photographs of himself with Watkins, Wolfe admitted that he had lied, the documents said. But he maintained that he had never disclosed to her any classified information that he had learned from his role on the Intelligence Committee.