The news last week that the Justice Department had secretly seized phone and email records from a journalist illustrated the extreme lengths to which the Trump administration will go to crack down on leaks. The news that the seizure was intertwined with a relationship the reporter had been having with someone on her beat illustrated the ethical perils of such a choice.
But another, equally troubling development in the story came on Tuesday night courtesy of the Washington Post. The newspaper reported that a Customs and Border Protection agent independently confronted the same reporter—Ali Watkins, a New York Times journalist who previously worked at Politico and BuzzFeed—about her confidential sources a year ago, several months before the FBI had approached her about the leak investigation that would eventually include the seizure of her records and culminate in the arrest of a Senate Intelligence Committee staffer.
Watkins had a years-long romantic relationship with that now-indicted Senate aide, James Wolfe. And that relationship was of prime interest to Customs and Border Protection agent Jeffrey A. Rambo when he reportedly approached Watkins last June through a private email address and without sharing his name. The two later met at a Washington restaurant, the Post reported (emphasis mine):
But after he arrived, Rambo said the administration was eager to investigate journalists and learn the identity of their confidential sources to stanch leaks of classified information. He questioned Watkins broadly about her reporting and how she developed information, according to the people familiar with the incident, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive matter.
Rambo asked Watkins, then a reporter at Politico, about her relationship with James Wolfe, then the director of security for the Senate Intelligence Committee. He gave her accurate dates and destinations for trips the two had taken together overseas — a revelation that left Watkins rattled, a person familiar with the events said.
Customs and Border Protection is a law enforcement agency within the Department of Homeland Security, which has access to Americans’ international travel records. But the Justice Department typically investigates leaks of classified information, and the Post reported that Rambo was not part of the FBI’s inquiry into Wolfe. Wolfe’s indictment last week on allegations that he lied to federal investigators says those investigators approached both he and Watkins months after the latter’s meeting with Rambo.
So let’s be clear about what the Post story suggests: A government agent independently accessed a private citizen’s personal information in order to identify the people with whom she corresponded.
The CBP’s Office of Professional Responsibility opened an inquiry into Rambo’s actions—such improper access of personal data may be illegal—after the Post asked about them. A spokesperson for the law enforcement agency did not respond to my question of whether it had previous knowledge of Rambo’s alleged freelance investigation.
“CBP takes all allegations of employee misconduct seriously,” a spokesperson said in a statement to Splinter. “The allegation has been immediately referred to CBP’s Office of Professional Responsibility. We encourage all members of the public to report any potential misconduct immediately so that it may be investigated.”
Watkins’ personal attorney, Mark J. MacDougall, has yet to respond to my request for comment.
Wolfe was the third person to be arrested—and the second indicted—by the Trump administration in connection with a leak investigation. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has promised to ramp up the already-unprecedented rate at which his Obama-era predecessors prosecuted such cases. But there is no clear connection between Watkins’ stories and the classified information at the heart of Wolfe’s indictment. Both have said that Wolfe did not pass along classified information to Watkins. Even more jarring, Watkins’ phone and email records were seized in secret, meaning it is possible that other journalists’ communications have similarly been targeted without their knowledge.
As these details continue to trickle out, the Times reported on Tuesday that it has opened an inquiry into whether Watkins’ relationship with Wolfe improperly affected her work for the newspaper. The paper previously reported that Watkins told her editors soon after she was hired in December that she had been approached by the FBI. But upon advice from her lawyer, she did not not share a February letter from investigators informing her of her records being seized until last Thursday.
“We obviously would have preferred to know, but the real issue here is the government’s intrusion into a reporter’s private communications,” Times spokesperson Eileen Murphy told the newspaper. “This should be a grave concern to anyone who cares about an informed citizenry.”
Trump’s defenders in the GOP and right wing media, meanwhile, have used the relationship between Watkins and Wolfe as cover for the government’s tactics.
Nothing about this story is good. But with the president referring to the press as “our country’s biggest enemy”—as he did this morning on Twitter—the idea of vigilantes using federal power to harass and intimidate journalists isn’t particularly surprising.
Update, 2 p.m.: This post was updated to clarify that Wolfe was both the second person indicted and the third person arrested by the Trump administration in connection with a leak investigation.