NEW YORK—The FBI’s seizure of years of a journalist’s records as part of its investigation into alleged leaks is a troubling step that demands government explanation, PEN America said today.

“The fact that the FBI seized a journalist’s personal and professional phone and email records going back years, will cast an inevitable chill on newsgathering at a time when the role of the press in holding government accountable is critically important,” said Suzanne Nossel, Chief Executive Officer of PEN America. “This is particularly the case given that the alleged leaks in question relate to allegations of inappropriate and potentially unlawful conduct on the part of a major presidential political campaign.”

“The nature of such an investigation imposes a duty of extraordinary care on law enforcement officials to avoid both the actuality and the perception of the executive branch targeting the media as a means to protect its own officials and to chill the disclosure of wrongdoing,” Nossel continued. “Law enforcement should explain to the public why such exceptional measures were necessary and how these measures comport with the Department of Justice’s own regulations aimed to limit interference into the critical work of journalists.”  

On June 7, former Senate Intelligence Committee aide James Wolfe was arrested and charged with lying to the FBI about contacts with reporters, in connection to allegations that Wolfe had provided reporters with sensitive information. Wolfe is alleged to have lied about contacts with three reporters, including Ali Watkins, who currently covers national security at The New York Times. The Times has reported that In February, authorities informed Watkins that the Department of Justice had seized her phone and email records. In its indictment of Wolfe, the District Attorney’s Office states that the government had knowledge of email, phone, and text communications between Wolfe and Watkins dating back to mid-2014. During that period, Watkins was a reporter for three different news outlets–BuzzFeed News, Politico, and The New York Times.

In 2017, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that the Justice Department was investigating three times as many leak investigations as those open at the end of the Obama Administration, which itself had prosecuted more leak cases than all other previous administrations combined. This is the first known instance of the Justice Department seizing a reporter’s data under President Trump.

PEN America’s work on the issue of press freedom and whistleblower protections includes it 2015 report Secret Sources, an examination of Obama Administration investigative and enforcement practices towards government whistleblowers. In its report recommendations, PEN America stated that the FBI practice of issuing national security letters to obtain journalists’ call records should be “strictly limited” to cases of “extreme urgency.”

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PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible. pen.org

CONTACT
Anoosh Gasparian, External Relations Coordinator: agasparian@pen.org​