DOJ Tells Ron Wyden About The Times It Has Collected Journalists' Communications; Leaves Some Facts Out

from the FILE-DELIBERATELY-NOT-FOUND dept

The Trump Administration — much like the administration before it — has declared war on leakers. The government prefers to selectively leak info using anonymous sources, but only the sort of leaks that serve its political/PR purposes. Everything else — no matter how much the leaked info serves to better inform the public — is the target of investigations and prosecutions.

Jeff Sessions claims this administration has opened three times as many leak investigations as Obama’s. If so, it will rack up unprecedented numbers. Both the Obama administration and the Trump administration have decided it’s OK to target journalists’ communications to hunt down leakers, an act that strikes at the very heart of the First Amendment.

An indictment against James Wolfe, a longtime Senate Intelligence Committee advisor, was put together by harvesting emails and other private communications between Wolfe and various reporters. This document confirmed what was already suspected by Ron Wyden, who demanded late last year the DOJ turn over information on its targeting of journalists’ communications.

As Zoe Tillman reports for Buzzfeed, the DOJ has delivered a response to Wyden’s, but it’s obviously still withholding information.

The department’s response letter dated March 5, 2018, obtained by BuzzFeed News, listed instances from “January 2012 to the present.” Not included: the seizure of New York Times reporter Ali Watkins’ email and phone records.

The department’s letter to Wyden predated the revelation last month that investigators had seized Watkins’ records as part of an investigation into former Senate Intelligence Committee staffer James Wolfe. According to the Times, Watkins, a former BuzzFeed News reporter, learned in February via a letter from the Justice Department that her records had been seized — appearing to put her case within the timeframe identified by the Justice Department in its March letter to Wyden.

This is a glaring omission by the DOJ. It suggests the agency is deliberately covering up some of its forays into First Amendment territory. This letter was delivered to Wyden in early March, a few months prior to the indictment showing the DOJ had gone after more journalists’ communications. None of those are listed in this response.

It could be the DOJ excluded Watkins from its response because it (supposedly) did not target her communications. Even if so, it omitted the other journalists caught up in the investigation of Wolfe, who very definitely appear to have had their communications seized.

If the DOJ is unwilling to correct the record, or at least explain why it excluded the Wolfe investigation from this report, this can only be seen as a bad faith response. It may have confirmed its surveillance of AP journalists that resulted in the greater restrictions on investigations involving journalists put into place by the last Attorney General, but if it can’t honestly discuss more recent targeting of press members, there’s no reason to believe it hasn’t decided to ignore its self-imposed restrictions.

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Comments on “DOJ Tells Ron Wyden About The Times It Has Collected Journalists' Communications; Leaves Some Facts Out”

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22 Comments
David says:

First things first.

If the DOJ is unwilling to correct the record, or at least explain why it excluded the Wolfe investigation from this report, this can only be seen as a bad faith response.

Never attribute to malice what can be equally well explained by stupidity.

Now here we are dealing with sensitive processing of matters at the core of the U.S. democratic system. Leaving this to either malice or stupidity is not an option, so we don’t make the call in order to figure out that the people in question are not fit for doing the job they are being paid for and must be removed from it.

When do we need to make the distinction? When deciding whether to bring criminal proceedings. The party responsible for conducting criminal proceedings is the DOJ.

So if you want to make that determination, the correct point of time is after replacing the incompetent and/or malignant DOJ officials responsible for perverting the grounding of the U.S. judicial system in the constitution.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Don't know what their real reason is...

After all, the letter to Wyden came before the indictment.

The response letter to Wyden was at the beginning of March. But, as Cushing points out from Tillman’s story—

According to the Times , Watkins, a former BuzzFeed News reporter, learned in February via a letter from the Justice Department that her records had been seized — appearing to put her case within the timeframe identified by the Justice Department in its March letter to Wyden.

(February and March highlighted.)

DoJ had already released the information in an February letter to Watkins. The next month, there’s not a lot of reason to keep it super-duper-secret in the March letter to Senator Wyden. The info was already out there, revealed to reporter Watkins.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Bureaucratic timing

The response letter to Wyden was at the beginning of March.

DoJ had already released the information in an February letter to Watkins.

There’s your answer. The DOJ letter to Wyden said "2012-Present", not "2012-March2018". That letter was probably written sometime before the Watkins disclosure (possibly even before the letter writer was aware of the Watkins surveillance), then bounced around through uncountable layers of bureaucracy before it was finally sent to Wyden. When it was written, it was truthful. DOJ just couldn’t be bothered to update the letter with newly disclosed facts after it had gone through all those months of approvals. By deliberately using the vague "Present", the letter could imply more truth than it actually carried. If they hadn’t so obviously bungled this by allowing a previously acknowledged event to fall within the "2012-Present" window that claimed not to have that event, it’s possible no one would have realized the selectiveness of the truth.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Bureaucratic timing

There’s your answer.

No. That’s not an answer.

I’m not on Senator Wyden’s staff, but I hope someone has advised Senator Wyden to return DoJ’s response to them, along with a request to revise, amend, and correct the information that Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd had previously provided in his incomplete response dated March 5, 2018.

… bounced around through uncountable layers of bureaucracy…

The layers of bureaucracy are intended to ensure that the information provided to the United States Senate is complete, candid, and accurate.

I’m inclined to call my senators up, and ask them to join in Senator Wyden’s request for information from DoJ. Someone from the Attorney General’s office should probably be asked to testify at a hearing.

Wendy Cockcroft (user link) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 But why didn't you mention Obama?

Dear lord, anyone would think that Hillary had been POTUS at some point, the way the Trumptards carry on.

It was the Obama, not the Clinton 2 administration (which never happened) that persecuted whistleblowers, only to have their efforts surpassed by this administration (which should never have happened). If you’re going to Whatabout we’ve already covered “But t’other one.” Now that we’ve covered it let’s focus on Jeff Sessons, Trump’s DOJ pick, and his persecution of whistleblowers to the detriment of the First Amendment.

Oh, and for the record the classified (or not) nature of the information released to the press doesn’t matter per the Pentagon Papers case if it’s in the public interest. Trump’s team is out of line with the Constitution, as Obama’s was beforehand.

Anonymous Coward says:

‘Jeff Sessions claims this administration has opened three times as many leak investigations as Obama’s’

if this is true, it’s only to be able to go after and prosecute more people, not to expose the bastards who are the subjects of the leakers reports! if they weren’t up to no good in the first place, no one would ‘leak’ about them, would they! and as for this administration, it has to be the worst in the modern history of the United States of America, even worse than the conduct carried out under Obama!

Anonymous Coward says:

Remember: same DOJ in which FBI Agent Strzok overlooked Hillary.

Same DOJ in which Rosenstein stalls Congress, same DOJ which pursued the silly “Trump-Russia collusion” — the story of which Techdirt transcribed New York Times and Washpo for months. — And do you now even admit the anti-Trump slant of DOJ or notice the “no Americans involved” in recent statements which pretty nearly clears Trump? — NO, you just pretend to be against the DOJ Swamp Monster! — But whenever attacks Trump again, DOJ credibility will be restored, in your highly selective opinion which ALSO leaves “facts out”.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Remember: same DOJ in which FBI Agent Strzok overlooked Hillary.

“I’m automatically attracted to beautiful — I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.”

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