DOJ secretly seizes phone and email records belonging to New York Times reporter Ali Watkins
On Feb. 13, 2018, the Department of Justice notified New York Times journalist Ali Watkins that it had seized years of her phone and email records. Since Watkins was only informed after the fact, she had no way to challenge the seizure.
Watkins is a national security reporter at the Times, who previously worked at BuzzFeed, Politico, and McClatchy. In February, she received a letter from the Justice Department, informing her that it had obtained her customer records and subscriber information from Verizon and Google.
Those records, known as “metadata,” include details of each and every call, text message, and email that she sent between 2014 or so, when she was still an undergraduate intern, and December 2017. The metadata does not include the actual content of her calls and emails, but does include the recipient of each call and email, the duration of each call, and the timestamp of each message.
The Justice Department seized Watkins’ records as part of an investigation into her confidential sources. Between 2014 and late 2017, Watkins was romantically involved with James Wolfe, the director of security for the Senate Intelligence Committee. The Justice Department began an investigation of Wolfe in connection with the leak of classified information to Watkins and other reporters. In December 2017, FBI agents interviewed Wolfe about his contacts with reporters, including Watkins. Federal investigators also approached Watkins around the same time, but she refused to speak with them.
In February 2018, a grand jury indicted Wolfe on charges of lying to federal investigators, in connection with statements he allegedly made during the December interview. The indictment accuses Wolfe of making false statements about the extent of his contacts with reporters, including Watkins. It also accuses him of making false statements about disclosing sensitive information to Watkins and another reporter.
Wolfe has not been indicted on charges of leaking classified information — to Watkins or any other reporters — and Watkins told her editors at the Times that he was not a source of classified information for her.
The seizure of Watkins’ phone and email records is the first (publicly-known) instance of the Justice Department obtaining a journalist’s communications records since Trump took office.
In 2013, during the Obama administration, it was revealed that the Justice Department secretly obtained access to a Fox News reporter’s private email account, and to months of phone records belonging to the dozens of Associated Press reporters, in an attempt to identify journalists’ sources.
After public outcry, the current Justice Department implemented voluntary guidelines in 2015. These guidelines direct the Department of Justice to only subpoena journalists for information as a last resort and require the attorney general to personally approve any subpoena of a journalist or news organization.
The guidelines also instruct the department to provide news organizations of advance notice of subpoenas and records requests related to journalism, so that the news organizations have a chance to fight the subpoenas in court before they are carried out. The guidelines specifically state that the journalist should be given advance notice, “unless the Attorney General determines that, for compelling reasons, such notice would pose a clear and substantial threat to the integrity of the investigation, risk grave harm to national security, or present an imminent risk of death or serious bodily harm.”
Watkins and The New York Times were not given advance notice or the opportunity to challenge the seizure in court. A Justice Department spokeswoman told the Times that the department “fully complied” with its internal guidelines when seizing Watkins’ records.
The Trump administration has floated the idea of modifying the internal guidelines but so far has not done so. According to the Times, deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein told a group of journalists on June 6, 2018 that the guidelines remained in effect.
The Washington Post reports that in June 2017, a Customs & Border Protection agent contacted Watkins and asked her about her relationship with Wolfe. The agent, Jeffrey Rambo, reportedly told Watkins that the Trump administration was interested in cracking down on leaks and referenced specific foreign trips that Watkins and Wolfe had taken together, suggesting that he had accessed her travel records.
Rambo's meeting with Watkins occurred months before FBI agents approached her to ask about Wolfe, and a law enforcement official told the Post that Rambo was not officially part of the FBI's investigation into Wolfe and Watkins.
After the Post asked CBP about Rambo's actions, the agency launched an internal investigation.
Sources told the Washington Post that the Justice Department decided that it did not need to give Watkins advance notice before seizing her phone and email records because it suspected she was in a personal relationship with Wolfe. The Post reports:
As top Justice Department officials considered whether they could secretly subpoena the records of a national-security reporter to advance a leak investigation, they homed in on the reporter’s romantic relationship with a man they believed to be her source, two people familiar with the matter said.
In normal circumstances, they would have to notify the reporter of the subpoena before they used it. But Justice Department leaders worried that if they told Ali Watkins of their intentions, she might tip off the man, a former director of security for the Senate Intelligence Committee, or take other steps that would upend the investigation, according to one of the people who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss an open investigation.
Justice Dept. considered relationship between reporter and source before secretly seeking records (Washington Post)