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Press Groups Criticize the Seizing of a Times Reporter’s Records

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© AP Photo/Patrick Semansky James Wolfe, former director of security with the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee, steps into a building across the street from a federal courthouse after appearing at a hearing, Friday, June 8, 2018, in Baltimore. Federal prosecutors are…

By MICHAEL M. GRYNBAUM, The New York Times

The revelation that federal prosecutors seized years’ worth of email and phone records from a New York Times reporter drew criticism on 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 own statement, called the seizure “an outrageous overreach” and raised concerns about a chilling effect on journalists’ ability to report on the government.

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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 A. Wolfe, 57, who retired last year, was arraigned in federal court on 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 F.B.I.

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 Trump called Mr. 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,” Mr. Trump added.

Ms. Watkins, 26, joined The Times in December. She and Mr. 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 Ms. Watkins had written for two previous employers, Politico and BuzzFeed News.

In February, Ms. Watkins received a letter from the Justice Department informing her that records from two personal email 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.

Ms. Watkins, after consulting with 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 Ms. Watkins on Thursday, as reporters were working on an article about Mr. 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,” Ms. Murphy said. “This should be a grave concern to anyone who cares about an informed citizenry.”

She added that Ms. Watkins would remain on her current beat, covering federal law enforcement.

“We support her,” Ms. Murphy said.

Ms. Watkins disclosed the relationship with Mr. Wolfe to The Times after she was hired, and before she started work at the paper on Dec. 18. On Thursday, Ms. Watkins told her editors that Mr. Wolfe was not a source of classified information for articles she had written during their relationship, which ended last year.

Ms. 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 C.I.A. 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.

Law enforcement officials did not obtain the content of the messages, according to the letter sent to Ms. Watkins by the Justice Department, but the information now in their possession — whom Ms. Watkins was communicating with, and when — could reveal her contacts. Reporters often rely on the trust of insiders who can offer insight into the workings of government, but often need their identities protected to preserve their livelihoods and, in some sensitive cases, avoid prosecution.

Under Mr. Obama, the Justice Department prosecuted more leak cases than all previous administrations combined. Mr. Trump’s attorney general, Jeff Sessions, said last year that the Justice Department was pursuing about three times as many leak investigations as were open at the end of the Obama era.

Documents filed in the indictment of Mr. Wolfe suggested that prosecutors were especially interested in a scoop by Ms. Watkins published in BuzzFeed in April last year. The article revealed that Russian spies had tried to recruit Carter Page, a former Trump adviser, in 2013 — information that had been furnished to the Senate Intelligence Committee.

“I’m not going to comment at all on a reporter’s sources in the middle of an unjustifiable leak hunt,” Ben Smith, the editor in chief of BuzzFeed News, said on Friday. He added that he was “baffled” by the Justice Department’s aggressive action against Ms. Watkins, given that Mr. Page had confirmed the information in the article.

Brad Dayspring, a spokesman at Politico, where Ms. Watkins worked as a reporter for part of 2017, said that she had disclosed her relationship with Mr. Wolfe “early on in her tenure” there, and that her role at the news outlet had been “managed accordingly” afterward.

When Ms. Watkins joined The Times, Mr. Wolfe was no longer working at the Intelligence Committee. On Dec. 14, days before her start date, F.B.I. agents approached Ms. Watkins and asserted to her that Mr. Wolfe had provided her with information; she did not answer their questions. Ms. Murphy, the Times spokeswoman, said Ms. Watkins had disclosed that conversation with the F.B.I. to her editors at the paper.

Around the same time, according to court documents, Mr. Wolfe was also meeting with F.B.I. agents in Washington. Asked by the agents if he had engaged in regular electronic communication with a reporter, he answered no.

Presented with photographs of himself with Ms. Watkins, Mr. Wolfe admitted that he had lied, the documents said. But he maintained that he had never disclosed to her any classified information that he had learned from his role on the Intelligence Committee.

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Politics - U.S. Daily News: Press Groups Criticize the Seizing of a Times Reporter’s Records
Press Groups Criticize the Seizing of a Times Reporter’s Records
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