RTDNA and its Voice of the First Amendment Task Force today strongly objected to a secret Justice Department action to obtain the phone and e-mail records of a journalist who now works for The New York Times.
According to the Times, reporter Ali Watkins received a letter from the national security division of the U.S. attorney’s office in Washington informing her, after the fact, that it had accessed her records as part of an investigation into alleged leaks from a former staffer at the Senate Intelligence Committee.
That staffer, James Wolfe, has been charged with lying to the FBI about whether he leaked information to Watkins, whom he’d been dating, and three other journalists – whose names were not disclosed in the indictment – while he served as director of security for the committee, and was responsible for protecting classified information provided to committee members.
Watkins, who started working at the Times in December, was a reporter for BuzzFeed News in April 2017 when she wrote an article about a Russian operative allegedly attempting to recruit former Trump campaign aide Carter Page. Federal investigators secretly obtained Watkins’ records in an effort to determine whether Wolfe was a source for her story.
Last August, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the Justice Department was reviewing Obama-era regulations that required the government to seek the identities of government whistleblowers from reporters only as a last resort, and then only with the approval of officials at the highest levels of the DOJ. Those rules were enacted by then-Attorney General Eric Holder after RTDNA and several other press freedom advocates expressed alarm when journalists were targeted as part of leak investigations.
“It appears General Sessions and his Justice Department have declared open season on journalists in their attempts to stop leaks of sensitive information,” said Dan Shelley, RTDNA Executive Director. “Such witch hunts not only make it more difficult for journalists to do their jobs; more important, they deprive the public of information it has a right – and need – to know.”
In his announcement last summer that the DOJ was reviewing its policies on going after journalists to find the sources of leaked information, Sessions said, "We respect the important role the press plays, and we'll give them respect, but it is not unlimited."
“It is hardly a sign of ‘respect’ that the Department of Justice would secretly access and then mine a journalist’s telephone and e-mail accounts, or those of any citizen, in an attempt to build a criminal case when, arguably, it has an extensive number of other means at its disposal by which to do so,” said Shelley.
RTDNA formed the Voice of the First Amendment Task Force to defend against threats to the First Amendment and news media access, and to bridge the divide between responsible journalists and those who don’t like, or don’t understand, the news media. People wishing to support RTDNA’s efforts may reach out to the task force by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.