In 'Chilling' Attack on Press Freedom, Trump's DOJ Seizes Records of Reporter

Ali Watkins

"But I'm also a believer in classified information".

A longtime US Senate staffer was arrested late Thursday on charges of lying to federal agents as part of an investigation related to the unauthorized disclosure of non-public information, according to a federal indictment.

NYT said yesterday, it learnt of a February letter informing Watkins that her records had been obtained, adding that those records covered a period before she started working for NYT late previous year.

One of those scoops was said to be Watkins' story on April 3, 2017, for Buzzfeed News that revealed the FBI was investigating former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page because a Russian spy attempted to recruit him in 2013. Recently, he demanded immunity from Congress as a condition for answering questions about the actions of the Justice Department under his leadership. The unusual move, which the Times said was "an outrageous overreach", was part of a Justice Department investigation into a suspected leak from Senate Intelligence Committee aide James A. Wolfe.

Watkins tweeted in 2013 about Netflix House of Cards character Zoe Barnes, an intrepid reporter involved in a brief romantic affair with then-Congressman Frank Underwood, a relationship many see as having parallels with Watkins and Wolfe's relationship.

Federal prosecutors obtained reporters' records in several cases under President Barack Obama, but the Justice Department in Obama's second term adopted rules created to shield reporters in many circumstances. "After WOLFE stated that he did not know about REPORTER #2's sources", the indictment reads, "FBI agents confronted WOLFE with pictures showing WOLFE together with REPORTER #2".

Sessions' remarks threatened a break with the Obama Justice Department policy, which asserted that reporters would not be targeted. "We were made aware of the investigation late past year and have fully cooperated with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Justice since then", they said.

Wolfe is expected to make his initial appearance in federal court Friday morning.

Each false-statement count is punishable by up to five years in prison, though if convicted, Wolfe would likely face only a fraction of that time. He left the organization in December and formally retired in May, reported the New York Times.

Wolfe's apparent communication via texts, emails, calls, and in-person conversations with these journalists contradicts sworn statements he made to the Federal Bureau of Investigation in December denying having contact with reporters.

Despite his denial, the indictment alleges, Wolfe "had, in truth, engaged in extensive contact with multiple reporters", adding that he was "conveying to at least two reporters information about" a person referred to in the documents only as "MALE-1".

The FBI was particularly interested in an article by Watkins that revealed that Russian figures had tried to recruit Carter Page in 2013.

Wolfe was accused of using his personal cellphone, his congressional email account and the encrypted apps Signal and WhatsApp to communicate sensitive information to reporters.

"It's always disconcerting when a journalist's telephone records are obtained by the Justice Department - through a grand jury subpoena or other legal process", said Ms. Watkins's personal lawyer, Mark J. MacDougall to The Times. While the info obtained may have been necessary to prove Wolfe lied to investigators, it does seem like a serious breach first amendment boundaries for nothing but vanilla "lied to the feds" charges. He denied to investigators that he ever gave classified material to journalists, the indictment said.

"Any time that a journalist's ability to do their job is threatened in a manner such as this, it's a major concern", said Politico spokesman Brad Dayspring.

It was the first known instance during the Trump administration of the Justice Department going after a reporter's data. President Donald Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions have decried such disclosures, with Sessions saying in August that the number of leak of criminal leak probes had more than tripled in the early months of the Trump administration.

"Mr. Wolfe's alleged conduct is a betrayal of the extraordinary public trust that had been placed in him".

The charges should serve as a warning to those who consider lying to law enforcement, said Jessie K. Liu, U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia.

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