Investigating alleged leaks by the former Senate aide, James A. Wolfe, the Federal Bureau of Investigation did not subpoena or imprison journalist Ali Watkins but instead seized her communication records without her knowledge - an intrusion into the reporter-source relationship that is often essential to accountability journalism.
Wolfe made his first court appearance Friday in federal court in Baltimore, about 15 miles from his home.
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The New York Times revealed federal investigators had seized years' worth of email and phone records relating to reporter Ali Watkins.
Wolfe's indictment alleges that Watkins and Wolfe had a romantic relationship dating back to 2013, when Watkins was a college student and intern with a news organization in Washington.
Matthew Miller, the former chief spokesman for the Department of Justice under attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., who had dramatically increased the number of leak investigations over prior administrations, said the department "went too far", in leak investigations, but that Holder then "put safeguards in place to prevent this from happening, except in the most exceptional cases". According to The New York Times, they didn't have the contents of Watkins communications, just the metadata showing proof that they were in contact with each other.
Facing an uproar at the time, the Justice Department eventually tightened its rules for pursuing reporter records, though Attorney General Jeff Sessions has ramped up leak investigations under the Trump administration. The reporter is Ali Watkins, who now works for The New York Times. Indeed, seizing his calls and texts would likely include exchanges with Watkins, but she would not be the target of surveillance.
On April 3, Watkins, then a reporter for BuzzFeed News, authored a story that revealed that former Trump campaign foreign policy adviser Carter Page had been in contact with at least one Russian spy working undercover in NY in 2013.
On Friday, Risen put out a statement in his new role as director of the First Look Press Freedom Defense Fund, calling the move against the Times reporter "an ominous step towards a more authoritarian apporach 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".
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The investigation of Wolfe came to light this week after the committee said that it was cooperating with the Justice Department "in a pending investigation arising out of the unauthorized disclosure of information".
Another of Watkins' former employers also faulted the Justice Department's conduct.
He is not charged with leaking classified information. Wolfe was arraigned in court Friday on charges of lying to investigators about his contact with journalists. After a year of leaks cascading down Capitol Hill, Wolfe is a cautionary tale for many members, staffers and journalists. Wolfe was arrested on Thursday, according to DoJ.
During a press conference previous year, Sessions said the Justice Department was "reviewing policies affecting media subpoenas", asserting that reporters' abilities to disclose information had to be weighed against national security concerns.
The reporters with whom Wolfe communicated with are not named in the indictment, but The New York Times identified one of them as its reporter Ali Watkins, who worked at BuzzFeed News and Politico prior to joining the Times in December. Watkins appears to be referred to as Reporter #2 in the indictment.
During that time, Watkins was part of a team of three reporters that produced stories about the intelligence committee's investigation of the CIA and its "enhanced interrogation" or torture program.
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