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DOJ sued over records involving surveillance of New York Times reporter Ali Watkins

September 20, 2018

The Department of Justice was sued Wednesday for withholding documents involving the government’s surveillance of Ali Watkins, a New York Times reporter whose email and phone records were secretly seized by federal investigators probing classified leaks.

First Amendment Coalition, a California-based nonprofit group, sued the Justice Department in San Francisco federal court in light of the government denying multiple Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests filed in pursuit of records involving the FBI’s monitoring of Ms. Watkins a Times journalist who previously dated James Wolfe, a former Senate Intelligence Committee aide charged with lying to investigators.

Mr. Wolfe, 58, was arrested June 7 after the FBI said he lied about his relationships with reporters, Ms. Watkins included, and First Amendment Coalition filed a pair of FOIA request the following week seeking material including any documents that would reveal to what extent investigators followed established guidelines governing the collection of confidential journalist data.

The Justice Department denied the requests, prompting plaintiffs to file suit in the form of a 43-page complaint seeking declaratory and injunctive relief for violations of the public records act.

“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 communicationsand if they are overreaching in doing so,” said David Snyder, First Amendment Coalition’s executive director.

The Justice Department did not immediately return a message seeking comment.

Enacted in early 2016, policies implemented during the Obama administration require the Justice Department to notify journalists whose records it wants to seize, except in exceptional circumstances. Ms. Watkins was notified by the government in February 2018 that her email and phone records had been collected dating back several months, raising questions of whether the Trump administration abided by the guidelines in pursuing the probe, plaintiffs wrote in the complaint.

“Whether the DOJ followed its own Guidelines in Ms. Watkins’ case is of overwhelming public interest,” attorney Leila Knox argued on the plaintiffs’ behalf. “If the DOJ has decided to forego the Guidelines without publicly stating so, or if it is claiming some exception that allowed it to forego the crucial notice and other requirements, the DOJ is likely in the process of collecting highly sensitive records from numerous other journalists without their knowledge and, crucially, without the opportunity to contest such collection in court.”

Mr. Wolfe was charged with three counts of making false statements to the FBI after prosecutors alleged he lied to investigators about speaking with reporters involving his work with the Senate panel. He has pleaded not guilty.

Ms. Watkins met Mr. Wolfe in 2013, and the pair became romantically involved for three years, according to multiple news reports.

In court documents, prosecutors said email and phone records revealed tens of thousands of electronic communications between a journalist referred to as “Reporter #2” and subsequently identified as Ms. Watkins.

“I’ve watched your career take off even before you ever had a career in journalism,” Mr. Wolfe wrote in one of the messages cited by prosecutors. “I always tried to give you as much information that I could and to do the right thing with it so you could get that scoop before anyone else.”

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