The revelation that federal prosecutors seized years’ worth of e-mail 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 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 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,” he 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 e-mail 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 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.