The Trump Administration Went After a New York Times Reporter During a Leak Investigation

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The Trump administration’s cold war against leakers finally seems to be heating up. A former Senate Intelligence Committee aide was arrested on Thursday for allegedly lying to federal agents about his communication with three journalists. The indictment was the culmination of a leak investigation that included the secret seizure of a New York Times reporter’s phone and email records.

James Wolfe, a longtime staffer for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, was charged with making false statements to authorities about sharing information with media outlets, including a reporter with whom he carried on a romantic relationship for three years. The Times reported Thursday night that the journalist in question was the newspaper’s own Ali Watkins, who joined the Times in December after working at BuzzFeed News and Politico.


Attorney General Jeff Sessions has previously promised that his Justice Department would ramp up leak investigations—the other, and potentially more chilling prong of Trump’s war on the press. For once, Trump is building on his predecessor’s legacy; the Obama administration carried out leak investigations at an historically unprecedented rate, a crackdown that included the secret seizure of Associated Press journalists’ phone records in 2012.

“The Attorney General has stated that investigations and prosecutions of unauthorized disclosure of controlled information are a priority of the Department of Justice,” Assistant Attorney General John Demers said in a statement announcing the indictment.

The FBI appeared to zero in on Watkins while trying to locate the sources for her April 3, 2017 BuzzFeed report that Russian agents had attempted to recruit Trump aide Carter Page. The indictment—which mentions a classified document but doesn’t detail if and how it relates to Watkins’ story—refers to Watkins as “REPORTER #2" and Page as “MALE-1":


The indictment further alleges that, between 2014 and 2017, as Watkins published dozens of pieces about the Senate Intelligence Committee’s activities, she and Wolfe carried on a personal relationship and exchanged “tens of thousands” of electronic communications.


Federal investigators seized records of those exchanges—though not their contents—from two of Watkins’ email accounts and a phone number through telecom companies including Google and Verizon. The decision to do so came a few months after agents asked Wolfe on an “Investigative Questionnaire” whether he’d been communicating with journalists—and then confronted him with pictures of himself and Watkins together. From the indictment:


The Times reports that these conversations occurred around the time the feds began approaching Watkins, who also said Wolfe did not giver her classified information:

F.B.I. agents initially approached Ms. Watkins about the relationship she had with Mr. Wolfe, saying they were investigating unauthorized leaks. The Justice Department told her in a letter sent in February that her records had been seized. The Times learned on Thursday of the letter, which came from the national security division of the United States attorney’s office in Washington.


Such seizures are supposed to be a last resort, per Justice Department rules. From the Times (emphasis mine):

Top Justice Department officials must sign off on any attempt to gain access to a journalist’s communications records.

It is not clear whether investigators exhausted all of their avenues of information before confiscating Ms. Watkins’s information. She was not notified before they gained access to her information from the telecommunications companies.


There are a few things to tease out here. The point about exhausting all other avenues is worth underscoring, as the seizure of Watkins’ records would seem to hold the potential to expose additional sources. “Whether it was really necessary here will depend on the nature of the investigation and the scope of any charges,” Watkins’ personal attorney, Mark J. MacDougall, told the Times.

What’s more, Wolfe was charged with three counts of lying to federal investigators about sharing “information that he learned as Director of Security for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and that was not otherwise publicly available.” That’s not a leak of classified information, per se. And the indictment itself does not specify what, if any, information in Watkins’ story about Page might have been classified.


There’s also the ethical issue of Watkins’ relationship with someone who works on her beat. Politico spokesman Brad Dayspring told Splinter in a statement that the outlet had two other reporters covering the Senate Intelligence Committee, meaning that it wasn’t Watkins’ primary focus. “Ms. Watkins did not disclose the personal nature of her relationship early on in her tenure at POLITICO, but she was managed accordingly [by her editors] once that disclosure was made,” Dayspring said.

In a statement to Splinter, BuzzFeed News Editor in Chief Ben Smith said:

I’m not going to comment at all on a reporter’s sources in the middle of an unjustifiable leak hunt. I am baffled that the FBI and Justice Department are going to these dangerous lengths over a story that points to public court documents that describe Russian spies approaching a Trump adviser, who himself is quoted confirming his role in the episode. I’d like to know why that should be secret.


While the Times reports that editors were notified of this relationship upon Watkins’ hiring, it appears the paper did not have knowledge until Thursday of the February letter in which federal prosecutors alerted Watkins that they’d seized her records. It’s also unclear whether Times brass had been notified of their previous conversations, which the Times reports occurred before Watkins joined the newspaper. I emailed Times spokesperson Eileen Murphy about this delay, and whether the news organization could have mustered additional legal protections otherwise. I’ve also reached out to Watkins and her lawyer, MacDougall.

Beyond these personal details, though, the broader implications for the press are chilling, according to a statement by Press Freedom Defense Fund Director James Risen and Deputy Director Kate Meyers. Risen was a longtime investigative reporter for the Times who was ensnared in a leak investigation by the Obama administration.


“The Trump administration’s draconian surveillance and targeting of a New York Times reporter is an ominous step towards a more authoritarian approach to the press by a White House that has already made it clear that it is at war with journalists, who are performing the daily public service of keeping Americans informed,” they said.

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About the author

David Uberti

I write about media for Splinter. I have redeeming qualities, too.