Justice Department Steps Up Assault on Press Freedom with Records Request Into New York Times Journalist

Posted on June 23, 2018

A new article from the New York Times reports that the Department of Justice sought, and was granted, communications records for a journalist as part of an investigation into a former Senate Intelligence Committee staffer who allegedly acted as a source for reporters at various media outlets. The investigation into James Wolfe, a former high-level aide to the Senate Intelligence Committee, is being carried out by the Justice Department for allegedly leaking sensitive material to the press, including Ali Watkins, the journalist whose records were seized.

The order issued by the Justice Department targets Watkins’s phone and email records from over a period of years during which she reported for BuzzFeed News, with a subsequent set of records taken from the time of her tenure with Politico. While the Justice Department’s records request order was issued in February, the existence of this order was only revealed this month. In fact, not only was Watkins not notified at the time of the government’s acquisition of her records, but she later found that her university email account was swept up in the search as well, and that the Justice Department was party to data on emails she sent while enrolled in university studies, illustrating an overbroad scope of government intrusion in light of the nature of the prosecution.

The Justice Department denies that any content was delivered to them by the cooperating communications providers, Verizon and Google, instead asserting that only the metadata of Watkins’ communications fell within the limits of their search.

As James Risen, the New York Times reporter who was the direct target of a Justice Department leak probe under the Obama administration, notes, while the Trump administration has been aggressive in the prosecution of whistleblowers and other confidential sources with access to sensitive information, this new development marks the first time that Trump’s Justice Department has directly obtained records of a journalist’s communications. In issuing this surveillance order, the Trump Justice Department has signaled that it intends to extend the Obama administration precedent of harsh crackdowns on journalists, and not merely their sources, a particularly alarming fact when seen in the light of an administration that routinely attempts to delegitimize the work of the press. 

Of greater concern, Risen points out that, by directing (or at least permitting) the Justice Department to pursue this intrusion into communications data belonging to a journalist who is actively investigating allegations of the Trump campaign’s collusion with elements of the Russian government, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has effectively circumvented his recusal from the case by manipulating its documentation in the media. In doing so, Sessions enjoys the ability to diminish the seriousness of reported developments in the collusion investigation, and the credibility of the reporters breaking these developments. It also serves as a way to deter reporters from digging into links between the Trump campaign and the Russian government for fear of reprisal by the Justice Department which, as its rifling through Watkins’s university email shows, could be so merciless as to dredge up intimate personal details from long before a journalist’s career began.

You can read the full piece from the New York Times here.