First Amendment group sues DOJ over seizure of New York Times reporter's phone, email records

First Amendment group sues DOJ over seizure of New York Times reporter's phone, email records
© Getty

A California-based First Amendment group is suing the Justice Department in federal court over the agency's seizure of phone and email records from Ali Watkins, a reporter at The New York Times.

In a lawsuit filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, First Amendment Coalition (FAC) alleged that the Justice Department had violated the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) by withholding documents related to the seizure of Watkins's email and phone records. Watkins, at the time, covered national security for the Times.

ADVERTISEMENT

The group is challenging the DOJ's collection of Watkins's records for months without her knowledge or consent, consequently preventing her ability to contest the collections in court.

"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,” David Snyder, the group's executive director, said in a news release.

Snyder added that the group filed two FOIA requests earlier this year for documents related to Watkins's case, but said that FAC has been stonewalled by the Justice Department.

“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,” he continues.

"In a February 13, 2018 letter to Ms. Watkins — made public only after June 7, 2018 — the government noted that, for many months and even years, it had been collecting phone and email records from Ms. Watkins’ account," the lawsuit states. "The February 13 letter raises numerous questions regarding the DOJ’s adherence to the department’s Media Guidelines (the “Guidelines”), which arose out of a major controversy surrounding the DOJ’s wide-scale and secret collection of phone records from the Associated Press and Fox News in 2013."

According to the suit, those guidelines, enacted in 2015, "provide numerous safeguards to prevent and constrain government overreach in the collection of journalist records, including the requirement that the government provide notice to affected journalists, absent exceptional circumstances."

"Based on the information publicly reported to date, it does not appear that the DOJ followed the Guidelines in Ms. Watkins’ case. And, if it did, it is not apparent why or if the DOJ believed exceptional circumstances existed such that it could forego notice to Ms. Watkins about the extensive collection of her phone and email records," the lawsuit continues.

The Times reported in June that Watkins's phone and email records had been seized by the Justice Department in an ongoing probe into leaks of classified information under the Trump administration. The seizure was the first known instance of the DOJ targeting a journalist's data under the current administration.

No charges have been filed against Watkins, but James Wolfe, the former head of security for the Senate Intelligence Committee with whom Watkins was romantically involved, was indicted for making false statements to FBI investigators.

The Times demoted Watkins over the incident, citing that the journalist had exercised poor judgement.

In a statement at the time, Watkins's attorney called the move by the Justice Department to seize years' worth of her communication records "disconcerting."

"It’s always disconcerting when a journalist’s telephone records are obtained by the Justice Department — through a grand jury subpoena or other legal process,” attorney Mark MacDougall said in June.

“Whether it was really necessary here will depend on the nature of the investigation and the scope of any charges," he added.