Justice Department Sued for Journalist Spying Files

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – The Justice Department on Wednesday was slapped with a federal lawsuit demanding information on whether it followed its own rules and procedures when it secretly collected a New York Times journalist’s phone and email records.

The New York Times and other publications revealed on June 7 that the government seized Times reporter Ali Watkins’ records for more than a year without notifying her or giving her a chance to challenge the action in court.

The First Amendment Coalition (FAC), a San Rafael, California-based public interest group, says the Justice Department failed to turn over records it requested on whether it followed guidelines established in 2015. Those guidelines, put in place by former Attorney General Eric Holder, require providing notice before collecting news reporters’ records except in extraordinary circumstances.

“Based on what we know now, it appears the DOJ ignored or somehow bypassed its important procedures for collecting journalists’ records – we want to know if that’s the case and, if so, why,” the coalition’s executive director David Snyder said in a statement.

The Justice Department adopted the new guidelines for collecting news reporters’ records after it came under fire for using a secret warrant to seize the phone records from 21 Associated Press journalists.

Those guidelines forbid using warrants to seize reporters’ records unless specifically authorized by the attorney general, attempts to obtain the information from other sources are exhausted, and notice is given to affected members of the news media absent a compelling reason not to provide such notification.

The First Amendment Coalition submitted Freedom of Information Act requests on June 13 and June 18, seeking all documents referring to the seizure of Watkins’ phone and email records along with the legal justification for that decision.

A Justice Department official said the records would be placed on a “complex track” and could take one to two years to process, and no official decision was made on the FOIA requests, according to the lawsuit.

“It’s absolutely critical that the DOJ provide this information to the public so all can understand when, how and why the DOJ is collecting records of journalist communications – and if they are overreaching in doing so,” Snyder said in a statement.

The collection of Watkins’ records was the first known seizure of a journalist’s records under the Trump administration. It was part of an investigation into leaked classified information that led to the indictment of James Wolfe, a 57-year-old Senate Intelligence Committee staffer. Wolfe, who was indicted in June for lying to the FBI, initially denied having contacts with specific journalists but later admitted he had a three-year relationship with Watkins.

In June, Wolfe pleaded not guilty to three counts of making false statements to the FBI.

The leak investigation was reportedly focused on an April 2017 article Watkins wrote for Buzzfeed before joining the Times. In that article, Watkins revealed Russian spies had approached former Trump campaign advisor Carter Page.

The government notified Watkins for the first time on Feb. 13 that it collected records from two of her email accounts and seized seven months of records from her phone account.

“Ms. Watkins had no opportunity to challenge the legal process used by the DOJ to obtain her records,” the First Amendment Coalition says in its 8-page complaint.

The coalition wants a judge to order the department to turn over the records without delay.

The group is represented by Leila Knox, of Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner in San Francisco. Bryan Cave also represents Courthouse News Service in its First Amendment legal actions.

The Department of Justice did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment Wednesday afternoon.

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