Is the Justice Department Spying on American Journalists?
A new lawsuit filed against the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) suggests the government may be secretly spying on journalists without their knowledge or consent.
The First Amendment Coalition (FAC), a public interest group based in California, slapped the DOJ with the lawsuit which demands that the DOJ turn over documents detailing whether the government followed its own rules when it obtained the phone and email records of Ali Watkins, a New York Times journalist.
The government seized Watkins’ records for more than a year without ever notifying her or giving her the opportunity to challenge the government’s actions in court.
The Justice Department May Have Violated Its Own Rules on Collecting Journalists’ Records
A 2015 guideline established by former Attorney General Eric Holder stipulates that journalists must be notified well ahead of time before the Justice Department can acquire their records. Extraordinary exceptions are allowed.
The FAC is now requesting for all documents related to the DOJ’s seizure of Watkins’ records and the legal justification for the seizure.
David Snyder, FAC’s executive director, said that based on available information, “it appears the DOJ ignored or somehow bypassed its important procedures for collecting journalists’ records.” Synder said the public should know why if that is the case.
The Justice Department came under the new guidelines for collecting journalists phone and email records after it was publicly condemned for seizing the records of 21 Associated Press reporters via a secret warrant.
The new guidelines provide that the DOJ cannot use warrants to obtain journalists’ records without the express permission of the attorney general. The regulations also provide that the Justice Department can only obtain such data when every other option has been explored and where adequate notice has been given to the affected reporter on why such data must be obtained.
The FAC presented the DOJ with a Freedom of Information Act request (FOIA) demanding for all documents relating to Watkin’s records seizure, but the DOJ has been slow to respond. A DOJ official gave no official position on the FOIA request but disclosed that processing Watkins records could take up to two years.
FAC Wants a Federal Judge to Compel the DOJ to Release All Documents Related to Seizure
“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.
Watkins is the first news reporter to have her records seized by the DOJ under the Trump administration. The Justice Department seized her documents to investigate leaked classified information that contributed to the prosecution of James Wolfe, a Senate Intelligence Committee member. Wolfe owned up to being friends with Watkins over a three-period after first lying to the FBI that he had nothing to do with journalists.
The Justice Department informed Watkins in February of 2018 that it had seized records from two of her email accounts and seized phone records spanning seven months.
The FAC wants a judge to order the DOJ to immediately turn over all documents related to the seizure of Watkins’ information.
The Justice Department has not responded to the lawsuit.