Trump administration seizes phone records and emails of Times reporter
Sessions is bragging that he is tripling the number of prosecutions against people in the press. | AP

The Trump Administration has seized the cell phone and emails of a New York Times reporter in what the newspaper says is the first time the administration has done anything like this.

Without warning, the Department of Justice told Ali Watkins, a Times reporter, in February that it had secretly secured years of her emails and phone records as part of its probe of leaks of allegedly classified materials. The Times said it learned of the seizure yesterday.

It is not surprising that Watkins would be targeted by the Trump administration. She broke the first stories in 2016 about the connections between Trump campaign staffer Carter Paige and the Russians.

The Times, along with most of the rest of the press, has condemned the actions. “Freedom of the press is a cornerstone of democracy, and we believe that communications between journalists and their sources demand protection,” Eileen Murphy, a Times spokesperson, said. “This decision by the Justice Department will endanger reporters’ ability to promise confidentiality to their sources and, ultimately, undermine the ability of a free press to shine a much-needed light on government actions. That should be a grave concern to anyone who cares about an informed citizenry,” she added.

Watkins’ phone data and emails were grabbed by the Trump administration’s Justice Department as part of its investigation of Jim Wolfe, a past director of security for the Senate Intelligence Committee. The FBI says it was investigating leaks of classified information by Wolfe to the press.

This is the most direct attack on the press by the Trump administration since it took office. Trump has made no secret of his disdain for the press and has, in the past, called for jailing of journalists who disseminate leaked information to the public.

Targeting of journalists by the government is not new, of course, and was done during the Obama administration. Dana Priest, a Pultizer prize-winning reporter for the Washington Post said in a New York Times article by James Risen in 2016 that “Obama’s attorney general allowed the FBI to use intrusive measures against reporters more often than any time in recent memory. The moral obstacles have been cleared for Trump’s attorney general to go even further, to forget that it’s a free press that has distinguished us from other countries, and to try to silence dissent by silencing an institution whose job is to give voice to dissent.” Major leaks by Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden resulted in major prosecutorial efforts against leakers by the Obama administration.

The fear now is that the Jeff Sessions-led Justice Department has begun what could be a much more intensive attack on press freedom. The administration has taken the position that journalists have no right to protect sources and that they should be jailed if they fail to comply with demands or subpoenas from them.

A major motivation for the attack on the rights of the Times reporter is, of course, Trump’s anger over the fact that Watkins had learned that Russian spies in 2013 had tried to recruit Trump campaign aide Carter Page. She broke that news in a Buzz Feed article 14 months ago.

Wolfe is accused by the FBI of reaching out to other reporters too with news about Page.

Seizure of emails or several years’ worth of communications from the personal or work records of a journalist amounts to a clear attack on the First Amendment Right of Freedom of the Press, most free press advocates say. The bar is very high, they contend, for circumstances to be serious enough to allow for exceptions.

BuzzFeed News said in a statement, “We’re deeply troubled by what looks like a case of law enforcement interfering with a reporter’s constitutional right to gather information about her own government.”

Sessions has been bragging about how he plans to step up harassment of the press. He has said he is pursuing about triple the number of investigations done under President Obama.

“The attorney general has stated that investigations and prosecutions of unauthorized disclosure of information are a priority of the Department of Justice,” John Demers, a Justice Department official, said in a statement issued to the press yesterday.

The seizures of the emails and records come after months of demands from Trump that the Justice Department take action against “leakers.”


CONTRIBUTOR

John Wojcik
John Wojcik

John Wojcik is editor in chief at Peoplesworld.org. He started as labor editor of the People's World in May, 2007 after working as a union meat cutter in northern New Jersey. There he served as a shop steward, as a member of a UFCW contract negotiating committee, and as an activist in the union's campaign to win public support for Wal-Mart workers. In the 1970s and '80s he was a political action reporter for the Daily World, this newspaper's predecessor, and active in electoral politics in Brooklyn, New York.

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