Imagine for a moment that you have received a very official looking letter. It turns out to be a notice from the U.S. Justice Department to let you know that — Surprise! — you are being searched.
Years of your telephone and email records have been seized without your knowledge all the way back to — and including — your college student days!
Such is the fine how-do-you-do that The New York Times reporter Ali Watkins received from the Justice Department in mid-February, the newspaper says. The FBI also had questioned Watkins about a three-year relationship she had with the Senate Intelligence Committee's former director of security, James A. Wolfe, in an investigation of unauthorized leaks.
A federal grand jury indicted Wolfe on Thursday allegedly for lying to FBI agents last December about his contacts with reporters, including Watkins, a former reporter for Buzzfeed and Politico.
In Washington's vast news media community something like this has been expected ever since Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a crackdown on leaks last August.
Just last week Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein assured journalists that the government's guidelines on obtaining information from reporters, created under President Barack Obama, remained in effect. Under those guidelines, barring such extreme circumstances as an imminent threat to national security, reporters would be told in advance of any attempt to obtain their records.
But a day later the revelation the Justice Department had seized Watkins' records raised alarms that the Trump administration was adopting the highly aggressive approach that ramped up in the Obama years.
That's a problem. As a board member of the Committee to Protect Journalists, I helped to represent the New York-based organization in meetings with Obama's Attorney General Eric Holder, who had dramatically increased the number of leak investigations over prior administrations.
Obama, a former teacher of constitutional law at the University of Chicago, alarmed CPJ and other press freedom advocates with the worst record on press freedom of any president since Richard Nixon put reporters on his "enemies list" — or perhaps since Abraham Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus during the Civil War.
Under pressure from Congress and intelligence agencies, Obama went after more leakers — many of whom are seen as whistleblowers — under the 1917 Espionage Act than all other administrations put together. Six government employees, plus two contractors, including Edward Snowden, were prosecuted under the act during Obama's watch, compared with a total of three for all previous administrations.
The administration went after Fox News reporter James Rosen, for example, naming him as a "co-conspirator" in a leak about North Korea's nuclear program. It also went after New York Times reporter James Risen to reveal his confidential source during the leak investigation of Jeffrey Sterling, a former CIA officer. Eventually both cases were dropped.
Acknowledging that the department went too far in its leak investigations, Holder put safeguards in place to prevent that from happening, except in the most exceptional cases. Under those guidelines, the Justice Department is supposed to exhaust all other means of obtaining information before seizing a reporter's phone and email records.
But with the new administration, Sessions simultaneously vows to avoid extreme measures while also in increasing investigations and prosecutions of alleged leakers.
And if press freedoms took a beating under Obama, Trump's anti-media rhetoric — lambasting mainstream media as "fake news" and smearing reporters as "scum" and the like — signals that under his watch we can expect even worse.
What is to be done? The Watkins case and the strong possibility of more like it underscore the need for a federal "shield law" like those in various forms in most states. Reasonable safeguards are needed to prevent government from indiscriminately seizing confidential records or forcing reporters to disclose anonymous sources.
At a time when one party controls the White House, Congress and appointments to the Supreme Court, it is particularly important to strengthen the independent voice of a free press. As Col. Robert McCormick, longtime editor and publisher of the Chicago Tribune, said in the credo etched in 93-year-old Tribune Tower's cathedral-like lobby, news media "furnish that check upon government that no constitution has ever been able to provide."
The Tribune, where I have spent most of my working life, is moving out of our historic tower. We don't need as much space in the digital age. That saddens me as an old-timer. But that ageless Tribune credo and its inspiring message is a gift worth taking with me wherever I go.