WASHINGTON — Federal law enforcement officials secretly seized years' worth of a New York Times reporter's phone and email records this year in an investigation of classified information leaks. It was the first known instance of the Justice Department going after a reporter's data under President Trump.
The seizure — disclosed in a letter to the reporter, Ali Watkins — suggested that prosecutors under the Trump administration will continue the aggressive tactics employed under President Barack Obama.
Mr. Trump has complained bitterly about leaks and demanded that law enforcement officials seek criminal charges against government officials involved in illegal and sometimes embarrassing disclosures of national security secrets.
Investigators sought Ms. Watkins's information as part of an inquiry into whether James A. Wolfe, the Senate Intelligence Committee's former director of security, disclosed classified secrets to reporters. F.B.I. agents approached Ms. Watkins about a previous three-year romantic relationship she had with Mr. Wolfe, saying they were investigating unauthorized leaks.
News media advocates consider the idea of mining a journalist's records for sources to be an intrusion on First Amendment freedoms, and prosecutors acknowledge it is one of the most delicate steps the Justice Department can take. "Freedom of the press is a cornerstone of democracy, and communications between journalists and their sources demand protection," said Eileen Murphy, a Times spokeswoman.
A prosecutor notified Ms. Watkins on Feb. 13 that the Justice Department had years of customer records and subscriber information from telecommunications companies, including Google and Verizon, for two email accounts and a phone number of hers. Investigators did not obtain the content of the messages themselves. The Times learned on Thursday of the letter, which came from the national security division of the United States attorney's office in Washington.
The records covered years' worth of Ms. Watkins's communications before she joined The Times in late 2017 to cover federal law enforcement. During a seven-month period last year for which prosecutors sought additional phone records, she worked for Buzzfeed News and then Politico reporting on national security.
Shortly before she began working at The Times, Ms. Watkins was approached by the F.B.I. agents, who asserted that Mr. Wolfe had helped her with articles while they were dating. She did not answer their questions. Mr. Wolfe was not a source of classified information for Ms. Watkins during their relationship, she said.
Mr. Wolfe stopped performing committee work in December and retired in May.
Ms. Watkins said she told editors at Buzzfeed News and Politico about it and continued to cover national security, including the committee's work. Ben Smith, the editor in chief of 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."
A Politico spokesman, Brad Dayspring, said that the situation was "managed accordingly" after Ms. Watkins disclosed the matter, and that her primary beat was national security and law enforcement, not solely the committee, which other reporters primarily covered.
Ms. Watkins also told editors at The Times about the previous relationship when she was hired to cover federal law enforcement.
Mr. Wolfe declined to comment. The F.B.I. is investigating Mr. Wolfe as part of the inquiry into leaks of classified information, people familiar with the matter confirmed.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions said last year that the Justice Department was pursuing about three times as many leak investigations as were open at the end of the Obama administration. Under Mr. Obama, the Justice Department prosecuted more leak cases than all previous administrations combined.
A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment.
"It's always disconcerting when a journalist's telephone records are obtained by the Justice Department — through a grand jury subpoena or other legal process," said Ms. Watkins's personal lawyer, Mark J. MacDougall. "Whether it was really necessary here will depend on the nature of the investigation and the scope of any charges."
The investigation came to light after the Senate Intelligence Committee made a cryptic announcement on Wednesday that it was cooperating with the Department of Justice "in a pending investigation." Earlier, the Senate quietly and unanimously adopted a resolution to share committee information with the Justice Department "in connection with a pending investigation arising out of the unauthorized disclosure of information."
Mr. Wolfe, 57, a former Army intelligence analyst, worked for the committee in a nonpartisan capacity for more than 30 years. He worked closely with both Democrats and Republicans on the committee.
When law enforcement officials obtained journalists' records during the Obama administration, members of Congress in both parties sounded alarms, and the moves touched off such a firestorm among advocates for press freedom that helped prompt the Justice Department to rewrite its relevant guidelines.
Under Justice Department regulations, investigators must clear additional hurdles before they can seek business records that could reveal a reporter's confidential sources, such as phone and email records. In particular, the rules require the government to have "made all reasonable attempts to obtain the information from alternative, non-media sources" before investigators may target a reporter's information.
In addition, the rules generally require the Justice Department to notify reporters first to allow them to negotiate over the scope of their demand for information and potentially challenge it in court. The rules permit the attorney general to make an exception to that practice if he "determines that, for compelling reasons, such negotiations would pose a clear and substantial threat to the integrity of the investigation, risk grave harm to national security, or present an imminent risk of death or serious bodily harm."
Top Justice Department officials must sign off on any attempt to gain access to a journalist's communications records.
It is not clear whether investigators exhausted all of their avenues of information before confiscating Ms. Watkins's information. She was not notified before they gained access to her information from the telecommunications companies. Among the records seized were those associated with her university email address from her undergraduate years.
"We intend to get to the bottom of these leaks. I think it has reached epidemic proportions," Mr. Sessions said in November during testimony on Capitol Hill. "It cannot be allowed to continue, and we will do our best effort to ensure it does not continue."
"Freedom of the press is a cornerstone of democracy," Ms. Murphy 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."
The Intelligence Committee is responsible for carrying out oversight of American intelligence agencies, including the F.B.I., the C.I.A. and the National Security Agency, and their secretive operations. It is one of the most tightly secured groups in Congress, with strict rules for lawmakers and the professional staff governing the circulation and release of sensitive, and often classified, information that passes before the committee.
As security director, Mr. Wolfe would have been responsible for ensuring that those rules were upheld. When the committee became a matter of intense interest as it undertook a bipartisan investigation of Russia's election meddling, Mr. Wolfe played a more visible role ushering witnesses in and out of the committee's secured office space.
The committee's members and aides have prided themselves on keeping sensitive information closely held, particularly as it began its high-profile Russia investigation requiring scores of private witness interviews and reviews of highly sensitive intelligence and law enforcement documents related to the case.