ASNE calls on DOJ to explain reasons behind seizure of NYT reporter's email, phone records
The American Society of News Editors, while joining with other members of the News Media for Open Government Coalition in a separate statement, is calling on the United States Department of Justice to explain the reasons behind the seizure of phone and email records relating to journalist Ali Watkins as part of an investigation into James A. Wolfe, a former Senate Intelligence Committee employee who has been charged with lying to federal officials about his contacts with three reporters. The lack of transparency surrounding the procedures followed in obtaining these records, combined with prior statements from Attorney General Jeff Sessions, raises serious concerns as to the department's committee to a free press and its role in informing the public.
“Although sometimes contentious, ASNE and its members have actually had a long and productive history of interacting with federal, state and local law enforcement officials when it comes to information being demanded or requested from journalists,” said ASNE President Alfredo Carbajal, managing editor of Al Día at the Dallas Morning News. “Historically, when law enforcement has encroached on the First Amendment rights of reporters, they have also listened to our complaints and worked with us to reach a solution. That is, first and foremost, what we are asking for here: a conversation about what happened, whether proper procedures were followed and what steps the Department of Justice will be taking in the future to comply with its own guidelines regarding issuance of subpoenas seeking information from journalists.”
ASNE is concerned with distinct lack of transparency surrounding prosecutors' seizure of this information as we participated in discussions with high-ranking Department of Justice officials, including then-Attorney General Eric Holder, the last time an action of this magnitude occurred. As a result of those discussions, the department agreed to update those guidelines and, though voluntary in nature, abide by them. It is entirely unclear whether those guidelines were followed here. For instance, there is no indication that all other sources for this information were exhausted before these records were seized, no indication that the amount of records seized were limited only to those necessary to the underlying investigation and no indication that these subpoenas were personally approved by the attorney general. These questions should be answered immediately, along with any other explanation the department can give regarding the process involved, and should be accompanied with a statement of clear intention that this will not be repeated in the future to fully ensure that sources, journalists and the public in general can remain confident that information can flow freely through those relationships.