The Justice Department seized telephone and email communications records for New York Times reporter Ali Watkins earlier this year as part of its investigation into a retired Senate Intelligence Committee staffer who was indicted Thursday night for allegedly lying to investigators.
It’s the first known case of DOJ seizing a reporter’s records under the Trump administration.
“Freedom of the press is a cornerstone of democracy, and communications between journalists and their sources demand protection,” New York Times spokesperson Eileen Murphy told the paper.
The investigation, first reported by The New York Times, seems to have targeted James Wolfe, the Senate Intelligence Committee’s former security director, with whom Watkins had a three-year romantic relationship. An indictment unsealed late Thursday night charges Wolfe with three counts of making false statements to federal investigators about his communications with Watkins and two other reporters during an interview last December.
The indictment also alleges Wolfe passed sensitive Intelligence Committee information to Watkins and at least two other reporters. It’s not clear whether any of that information was classified, and Wolfe has not been charged with mishandling classified information.
There is no law against leaking sensitive government information that is not classified.
Investigators seized years worth of Watkins’ telephone and email metadata — information about who she communicated with and when. Metadata can often reveal as much, or more, than the content of a communication, especially when it’s correlated with other information.
The Intelligence Committee on Wednesday unanimously agreed to give DOJ documents “in connection with a pending investigation arising out of the unauthorized disclosure of information.”
In a joint statement Thursday night, committee chair Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) and Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) said they were “troubled” by the charges against Wolfe.
“This news is disappointing, as the former staffer in question served on the Committee for more than three decades, and in the Armed Forces with distinction,” the statement read. “However, we trust the justice system to act appropriately and ensure due process as this case unfolds.”
The committee found out that the DOJ had subpoenaed Watkins’ records after they read about it the New York Times, a committee source told ThinkProgress.
In 2013 the Obama-era Justice Department also faced controversy after its aggressive leak investigations swept up the records of Associated Press reporters. The outcry lead the administration to tighten its regulations on when and how DOJ could seize reporters’ records as part of an investigation. The new rules, still in place, require officials to exhaust other avenues of investigation before taking legal action to get a reporter’s records and, in general, to negotiate with the reporter prior to taking such steps.
The DOJ did not negotiate with Watkins before seizing her records, according to the Times, and it’s not clear whether officials exhausted other avenues.
President Donald Trump has railed, on Twitter and on TV, against leaks to the media. “After many years of LEAKS going on in Washington, it is great to see the A.G. taking action!” he tweeted last August, in just one example. “For National Security, the tougher the better!”
After many years of LEAKS going on in Washington, it is great to see the A.G. taking action! For National Security, the tougher the better!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 5, 2017
In an Oval Office conversation memorialized in one of former FBI Director Jame Comey’s now-famous memos, he and Trump discussed prosecuting a leaker as a “head on a pike,” in Comey’s words, to warn other government officials off of talking to the press.
Later in that conversation, Comey said Trump went a step further, joking about jailing reporters who publish leaks: “They spend a couple days in jail, make a new friend and they are ready to talk.”