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The Justice Department seized the phone and email records of a New York Times reporter as part of its effort to stop government leaks. (Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images)

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

"This decision by the Justice Department will endanger reporters' ability to promise confidentiality to their sources and, ultimately, undermine the ability of a free press to shine a much-needed light on government actions."

Julia Conley

Crossing a line that the Obama administration was previously attacked for breaching, the Department of Justice seized the phone and email records of a national security reporter at the New York Times in the Trump administration's effort to stop government leaks.

As the Times reported on Friday, journalist Ali Watkins was informed by the DOJ earlier this year that the department had obtained records for two of her email accounts and her phone number, going back several years up until November 2017. The department did not obtain the content of her phone calls or emails.

"Freedom of the press is a cornerstone of democracy, and we believe that communications between journalists and their sources demand protection," Eileen Murphy, spokesperson for the Times, said in a statement. "This decision by the Justice Department will endanger reporters' ability to promise confidentiality to their sources and, ultimately, undermine the ability of a free press to shine a much-needed light on government actions. That should be a grave concern to anyone who cares about an informed citizenry."

The records were reviewed as part of the DOJ's investigation into James Wolfe, director of security for the Senate Intelligence Committee, whose role involved protecting classified information shared with committee members and interacting with witnesses who met with the panel.

Watkins was targeted in the investigation due to a previous romantic relationship she had had with Wolfe. Last year, she refused to answer questions from the FBI about her relationship with Wolfe and denied that he was a source for her articles.

Watkins has covered a number of high-profile national security stories during the Trump administration, including former Trump advisers Carter Page and George Papadopoulos' communications with Russians during and before the Trump campaign.

News of the Trump administration's investigation into Watkins' communications comes a day after Wolfe's arrest and indictment on charges of lying to the FBI about his communications with reporters. He has been accused of giving sensitive information to at least two reporters.

The Trump administration's probe into a journalist's personal data carries echoes of the DOJ's seizure of similar records under President Barack Obama. In 2013, the department obtained records of 20 personal and work phone lines of several Associated Press reporters. The records included outgoing calls and were seized as the administration was attempting to crack down on leaks.

At the time, the news outlet called the seizure "a serious interference with AP's constitutional rights to gather and report the news."

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