In the course of a federal investigation into classified leaks by a Senate Intelligence Committee aide, prosecutors seized phone and email records of a New York Times reporter.
The Times reported Friday that James A. Wolfe, who has been charged with lying to investigators regarding his communications with three reporters, allegedly disclosed classified materials to a reporter he was dating – The Times’ Ali Watkins.
Mr. Wolfe’s case led to the first known instance of the Justice Department going after a reporter’s data under President Trump. The seizure was disclosed in a letter to the Times reporter, Ali Watkins, who had been in a three-year relationship with Mr. Wolfe. The seizure suggested that prosecutors under the Trump administration will continue the aggressive tactics employed under President Barack Obama.
Court documents describe Mr. Wolfe’s communications with four reporters — including Ms. Watkins — using encrypted messaging applications. It appeared that the F.B.I. was investigating how Ms. Watkins learned that Russian spies in 2013 had tried to recruit Carter Page, a former Trump foreign policy adviser. She published an article for BuzzFeed News on April 3, 2017, about the attempted recruitment of Mr. Page in which he confirmed the contacts.
Watkins was formed in a February letter from the Justice Department that her records had been seized; The Times learned of the letter Thursday.
The hurdles to be cleared in order to obtain a journalist’s records without prior notification are high – Justice Department officials must exhaust all other avenues of acquiring the needed information before targeting a journalist.
Even then, barring extraordinary circumstances, the journalist must be notified of the Justice Department’s intent and allowed the opportunity to negotiate the scope of the records request.
The rules permit the attorney general to make an exception to that practice if he “determines that, for compelling reasons, such negotiations 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.”
Top Justice Department officials must sign off on any attempt to gain access to a journalist’s communications records.
The Times notes that it remains unclear as to whether the Justice Department exhausted all avenues before seizing Watkins’ information.
She was not notified before they gained access to her information from the telecommunications companies. Among the records seized were those associated with her university email address from her undergraduate years.
In November, Trump’s attorney general indicated the Justice Department would ratchet up investigations into classified leaks, telling Congress the issue had reached “epidemic proportions”.
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 administration. Under Mr. Obama, the Justice Department prosecuted more leak cases than all previous administrations combined.
“The attorney general has stated that investigations and prosecutions of unauthorized disclosure of controlled information are a priority of the Department of Justice,” John Demers, a top Justice Department official, said in a statement announcing Mr. Wolfe’s arrest.