Justice Department seizes reporter’s phone, email records in leak probe

The Department of Justice reportedly seized a New York Times reporter’s phone and email records this year in an effort to probe the leaking of classified information, the first known instance of the DOJ going after a journalist’s data under President Trump.

The Times reported Thursday that the DOJ seized years’ worth of records from journalist Ali Watkins’s time as a reporter at BuzzFeed News and Politico before she joined The Times in 2017 as a federal law enforcement reporter, according to the report Thursday.

Watkins was alerted by a prosecutor in February that the DOJ had years of records and subscriber information from telecommunications companies such as Google and Verizon for two email accounts and a phone number belonging to her.

Investigators did not receive the content of the records, according to The Times.

The newspaper reported that it learned of the letter on Thursday.

“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,” Watkin’s attorney Mark MacDougall said in a statement to The Times.

“Whether it was really necessary here will depend on the nature of the investigation and the scope of any charges.”

The Hill has reached out to the Justice Department for comment.

FBI agents reportedly contacted Watkins about a previous three-year romantic relationship with the Senate Intelligence Committee’s former director of security, James Wolfe, as part of a probe into unauthorized leaks.

Watkins reportedly did not answer the agents’ questions, however. Watkins told The Times that Wolfe did not act as a source for information during their relationship.

She also said she informed editors at BuzzFeed, Politico and The Times of the relationship.

BuzzFeed News editor Ben Smith declined to comment for the Times report, while Politico didn’t immediately respond for its request for comment.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced last year that the DOJ had tripled the number of leak investigations it was conducting compared to the Obama administration, which prosecuted more leak cases than all other administrations.

[The Hill]

Trump contradicts himself in a single tweet about leaks he claims are fake news

President Donald Trump went off on the “fake news” that claims leaks are coming out of the West Wing of the White House. First, he called it fake news, and then he denounced the leaks that were coming out.

“The so-called leaks coming out of the White House are a massive over exaggeration put out by the Fake News Media in order to make us look as bad as possible. With that being said, leakers are traitors and cowards, and we will find out who they are!” Trump tweeted Monday.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was bothered by the leak of the comment top aide Kelly Sadler made about Sen. John McCain (R-AZ). It has been reported that the communications department is searching for the leak.

When it was revealed that first lady Melania Trump underwent a procedure Monday on her kidney, pundits remarked that no one knew the procedure was coming. They compared the leaks in the East Wing, the first lady’s office, to the sieve in Trump’s West Wing.

[Raw Story]

Sarah Huckabee Sanders Calls Kelly Sadler’s John McCain Remarks A “Leak” & She Won’t Discuss It

White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders had quite the controversy to answer for on Friday. It was less than 24 hours after an administration official reportedly made a deeply offensive joke about cancer-stricken Arizona senator John McCain, but as it turned out, she wasn’t willing to get into any sort of specifics about it. Sanders ducked questions about Kelly Sadler’s “dying” John McCain joke during the press briefing, insisting that she wasn’t going to “validate a leak” about an internal administration meeting.

Sanders, who’s been the press secretary since the departure of Sean Spicer from the job last July, did not seem very pleased to be fielding the questions. It was on Thursday that Sadler, a special assistant to President Donald Trump, reportedly joked during an administration meeting that McCain’s opposition to CIA director nominee Gina Haspel was irrelevant, because “he’s dying anyway.”

McCain, 81, was diagnosed with glioblastoma last summer, a rare and highly aggressive form of brain cancer. It’s the same type of cancer that former Massachusetts senator Ted Kennedy died from back in 2009, and McCain has been straightforward about just how poor his prognosis is.

“They said that it’s very serious, that the prognosis is very, very serious,” McCain told CBS’ 60 Minutes last year. “Some say 3 percent, some say 14 percent. You know, it’s a very poor prognosis.”

When repeatedly asked about Sadler’s remark ― and more specifically, whether Sadler still has a job at the White House ― Sanders more or less stonewalled, declining to address the substance of the reports.

“I’m not going to comment on an internal staff meeting,” she said. “I’m not going to validate a leak, one way or another, out of an internal staff meeting.”

Sadler’s reported remark has stirred controversy and outrage on social media, and in the mainstream media too. In particular, both McCain’s daughter Meghan and his wife Cindy have responded publicly, with Cindy sending a tweet to Sadler reminding her that he has a loving family.

Meghan, for her part, responded to the comment on Friday’s episode of The View, remarking that her father is actually “doing really well right now” before addressing Sadler directly.

“Kelly, here’s a little news flash, and this may be a little intense for 11 o’clock in the morning on a Friday, but, we’re all dying,” she said. “And it’s not how you die, it is how you live.”

According to reports, Sadler’s joke was met largely with silence, and a few uncomfortable laughs. The White House subsequently put out a statementexpressing “respect” for McCain’s service to his country, although it did not address Sadler’s remark.

The news came the very same day that a Fox Business on-air guest sparked controversy by voicing support for American use of torture, claiming it worked on McCain. Specifically, former Air Force officer Thomas McInerney told Fox Business’ Charles Payne that McCain, who was captured and held as a prisoner for more than five years during the Vietnam war, was proof that torture worked, derisively calling him “songbird John.”

For the record, there’s no evidence McCain ever surrendered valuable information to the Vietnamese throughout the years he was tortured and beaten, although that’s not even very relevant to the cruelty of the remark. Payne ultimately issued an apology over the incident, and it similarly drew a stern response from McCain’s wife, Cindy.

In short, McCain’s name has been in the press a lot the past few days, and not necessarily for happy reasons. For what it’s worth, however, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan chimed in on the conversation on Friday, calling the Arizona senator a “hero” who “gave his entire adult life for this country.”

[Bustle]

Media

The Justice Department Deleted Language About Press Freedom And Racial Gerrymandering From Its Internal Manual

Since the fall, the US Department of Justice has been overhauling its manual for federal prosecutors.

In: Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ tough-on-crime policies. Out: A section titled “Need for Free Press and Public Trial.” References to the department’s work on racial gerrymandering are gone. Language about limits on prosecutorial power has been edited down.

The changes include new sections that underscore Sessions’ focus on religious liberty and the Trump administration’s efforts to crack down on government leaks — there is new language admonishing prosecutors not to share classified information and directing them to report contacts with the media.

Not all changes are substantive: Long paragraphs have been split up, outdated contacts lists have been updated, and citations to repealed laws have been removed.

The “US Attorneys’ Manual” is something of a misnomer. Federal prosecutors in US attorney offices across the country use it, but so do other Justice Department — often referred to as “Main Justice” — lawyers. The manual features high-level statements about department policies and priorities as well as practical guidance on every facet of legal work that comes through the department.

The last major update to the manual was in 1997. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein — the DOJ’s number two official and a veteran federal prosecutor — ordered the top-to-bottom review, according to department spokesperson Ian Prior. In a March speech announcing changes to the department’s policy for enforcing certain anti-corruption laws, Rosenstein lamented the difficulty prosecutors have keeping track of policy and procedure changes when they aren’t reflected in the manual.

Some of the recent changes were publicly announced. In January, for instance, the department said it was adding a section called “Respect for Religious Liberty,” directing prosecutors to alert senior officials about lawsuits filed against the US government “raising any significant question concerning religious liberty” and articulating “Principles of Religious Liberty” that Sessions laid out in an earlier memo.

Most changes haven’t been publicly announced, though, which is common practice, according to former DOJ officials who spoke with BuzzFeed News. US attorney offices have been notified of the significant changes so far, and notice will go out when the review is done, Prior said. The public version of the manual online notes when individual sections were last updated.

The Justice Department declined to comment on specific changes. In a statement to BuzzFeed News, Prior said the manual is meant to be a “quick and ready reference” for lawyers, not “an exhaustive list of constitutional rights, statutory law, regulatory law, or generalized principles of our legal system.”

“While sections of the USAM have changed over time, the last comprehensive review and update of the USAM occurred twenty years ago. During that time, policies have changed or become outdated, and leadership memos were issued without being incorporated into the USAM. As part of the effort to consolidate policies into a useful one-stop-shop of litigation-related documents for the Department, the Deputy Attorney General ordered a thorough, department wide review of the USAM,” Prior said. “The purpose of that review is to identify redundant sections and language, areas that required greater clarity, and any content that needed to be added to help Department attorneys perform core prosecutorial functions.”

The review is taking place while the Justice Department is still missing several Senate-confirmed officials, including heads of the Criminal Division, the Civil Division, the Civil Rights Division, and the Environment and Natural Resources Division. Nominees for those posts are waiting for a final vote in the Senate. Trump has yet to announce a nominee for associate attorney general, the department’s third-ranking official, following the February departure of Rachel Brand. Prior said that the review process has included career attorneys from across the department.

Sections of the manual that dealt with a variety of personnel and administrative issues, many of which are explained in other internal department documents or are included in federal statutes and regulations, were removed. Those sections included language about what happens when a US attorney spot is vacant, policies for securing and paying witnesses, and compliance with the Freedom of Information Act.

BuzzFeed News compared the latest version of the manual with earlier versions saved via the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine.

[Buzzfeed]

Fireworks at Trump Rally as POTUS Goes on Wild Comey Rant: ‘I Did You a Favor’ By Firing Him

President Donald Trump unleashed a lengthy tirade against ex-FBI Director James Comey during his Saturday night rally in Washington Township, MI. The crowd erupted in applause as Trump began repeatedly asking “What about James Comey?” several times and “How ’bout this guy Comey?” before condemning the former head of the federal agency and the American press.

“And what about — hey, what about Comey? Have you watched him on the interviews? What about Comey? What about Comey? How about that? So Comey — how about this guy, Comey?” Trump began. “He said the other night the fake dirty dossier, he said the other night on Fox, he said very strongly, ‘No, I didn’t know that it was paid for by the Democrats and Hillary Clinton.’ He didn’t know. He didn’t know. How about that?”

The president was referring to Comey’s wide-ranging interview on Friday with Fox News’ Bret Baier to discuss his new book, A Higher Loyalty, as well as the FBI’s investigations into Trump and Clinton.

“When did you learn that the [Democratic National Committee] DNC and Hillary Clinton campaign had funded Christopher Steele’s work?”

“I still don’t know that for a fact,” Comey replied. “I’ve only seen it in the media. I never knew exactly which Democrats had funded. I knew it was funded first by Republicans.”

Fusion GPS, the firm which produced the dossier, was first funded by the conservative publication The Washington Free Beacon “to provide research on multiple candidates in the Republican presidential primary,” according to statements representatives from the outlet provided to Congressional investigators last year.

But at Trump’s rally on Saturday, the president decried Comey and the situation surrounding the dossier, describing both as a “disgrace.”

“Comey is a liar and a leaker,” he continued. “You know, I did you a great favor when I fired this guy. I tell you, I did you a great favor. Because when you look at what was going on at the top of the FBI, it is a disgrace and everybody in this room understands it.”

[Mediaite]

Trump officials caught seeking State Department purge

Two top House Democrats allege that high-level political appointees in the State Department and senior White House officials have worked with conservative activists to purge from the agency career officials deemed insufficiently loyal to President Trump.

A letter sent Thursday to White House chief of staff John Kelly and Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan alleges that political appointees at the State Department have characterized career officials in “derogatory terms.”

Among the descriptors used for certain career officials were “a leaker and a troublemaker” and a “turncoat,” the letter from Reps. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) and Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) reads, citing documents obtained from a whistleblower.

Those documents also contain communications with high-profile conservative activists, including former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) and David Wurmser, a former adviser to former Vice President Dick Cheney.

In one email forwarded by Gingrich to Trump-appointed officials at the State Department, Wurmser wrote that “a cleaning is in order here,” apparently referring to removing career employees believed to be disloyal to Trump.

“I hear [Secretary of State Rex] Tillerson actually has been reasonably good on stuff like this and cleaning house, but there are so many that it boggles the mind,” Wurmser wrote.

The allegations highlight what critics have said is Trump and his aides’ intense concern about loyalty within the government, particularly in the State Department. The president and his allies have in the past suggested the existence of a “deep state” bent on undermining his agenda.

The State Department has seen a particularly significant exodus of career officials since Trump took office last year. While some of those departures were attributed to planned retirements, others have reportedly left amid dwindling morale.

The letter from Cummings and Engel points to one case, in particular — that of Sahar Nowrouzzadeh.

Nowrouzzadeh, an Iran expert and civil servant, raised concerns to her boss, Brian Hook, the State Department’s director of policy planning, last year after she was targeted by an article in a conservative news outlet.

“I am and have been a career civil servant for nearly 12 years now,” she wrote in an email to Hook, noting that she began her government career under the Bush administration. “I’ve adapted my work to the policy priorities of every administration I’ve worked for.”

In the email, she asked Hook for advice on how to “correct the record.”

But Hook, according to the lawmakers’ letter, instead forwarded Nowrouzzadeh’s email to White House officials, and it later served as the basis for an internal discussion about her loyalty to the Trump administration that touched on her work on the Iran nuclear deal.

One email from Julia Haller, a White House liaison to the State Department at the time, falsely claimed that Nowrouzzadeh was born in Iran and alleges that she “cried when the President won” the 2016 election.

Nowrouzzadeh was eventually removed from her detail on the State Department’s policy planning staff three months early, Cummings and Engel said.

The letter requests a trove of documents and communications about the actual or proposed reassignments of career employees at the State Department related to “alleged personal political beliefs, prior service with previous Administrations, or work on prior Administrations’ foreign policy priorities.”

The lawmakers have asked for those materials to be turned over by March 29.

Heather Nauert, the acting undersecretary of State for public diplomacy, said on Thursday that the State Department would comply with the lawmakers’ requests, but noted that she had never witnessed any kind of disloyalty on the part of career officials at the agency.

“I have found my colleagues to be extremely professional,” Nauert said at a department press briefing. “Those on staff who have been here for many years, I have found them almost blind to politics.”

[The Hill]

Trump: ‘Little Adam Schiff’ one of the ‘biggest liars and leakers in Washington’

President Trump on Monday lashed out at Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), calling him “one of the biggest liars” in Washington and accusing him of leaking confidential information.

“Little Adam Schiff, who is desperate to run for higher office, is one of the biggest liars and leakers in Washington, right up there with [James] Comey, [Sen. Mark] Warner, [John] Brennan and [James] Clapper!” Trump tweeted, referring to the former FBI director, the Senate Intelligence Committee vice chairman, a former CIA chief and a former national intelligence chief, respectively.

Trump also accused Schiff of leaving committee hearings to “illegally leak confidential information,” something the White House has previously suggested Schiff has done.

Schiff, who is the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, has denied such accusations and fired back later Monday morning, saying Trump was spreading “false smears.”

“Instead of tweeting false smears, the American people would appreciate it if you turned off the TV and helped solve the funding crisis, protected Dreamers or…really anything else,” Schiff tweeted.

The California lawmaker has been a vocal critic of Trump and in recent days has been a central figure in objecting to the release of a Republican-crafted memo that alleges the Department of Justice abused a surveillance program to target the Trump campaign in 2016.

The four-page memo was released Friday after Trump declassified the document. The president tweeted that it “totally vindicates” him in the ongoing probe into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.

Schiff, however, said the memo does “quite the opposite.” Multiple Republicans said Sunday that the memo does not vindicate Trump.

Schiff also warned Sunday that Trump is trying to turn the Justice Department into a “personal political tool.”

The Intel panel is scheduled to meet on Monday to consider whether to declassify a Democratic memo that counters the Republican’s release.

[The Hill]

Reality

There is no evidence Adam Schiff leaked anything. Even Fox News had nothing, interviewing Devin Nunes who said he was responsible for 100 leaks, but provided no evidence. A common theme with Nunes.

Trump Administration Looking Into Jailing Journals For Publishing Leaks

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, taking up an issue that has infuriated President Donald Trump, went on the attack against leaks on Friday, and said that the government was reviewing policies on compelling journalists to reveal sources.

“One of the things we are doing is reviewing policies affecting media subpoenas,” Sessions told reporters as he announced administration efforts to battle what he called a “staggering number of leaks undermining the ability of our government to protect this country.”

“We respect the important role that the press plays and will give them respect, but it is not unlimited,” he said.

A media subpoena is a writ compelling a journalist to testify or produce evidence, with a penalty for failure to do so. The fact the administration is reviewing its policy leaves open the possibility of sentencing journalists for not disclosing their sources.

Trump has repeatedly voiced anger over a steady stream of leaks to the media about him and his administration since he took office in January. Some have been related to probes into Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, others have concerned infighting in the White House.

Speaking to reporters after the media event with Sessions, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said the department was just starting to review the policy on media subpoenas and could not say yet how it might be changed. But he did not rule out the possibility of threatening journalists with jail time.

Under U.S. law, a government attorney must seek the attorney general’s approval before issuing a subpoena to attempt to force a member of the news media to divulge information to authorities.

New York Times reporter Judith Miller was jailed in 2005 for refusing to reveal a source about stories on Iraq, but she cut a deal with prosecutors before she was formally charged.

In addressing the wider issue of leaks, Sessions said the Justice Department has tripled the number of investigations into unauthorized leaks of classified information and that four people have already been charged.

“We are taking a stand,” said Sessions, who in recent weeks has been publicly criticized by Trump for his performance in the job, including for what Trump called his weakness on the issue of going after leakers. “This culture of leaking must stop,” Sessions said.

It is not illegal to leak information, as such, but divulging classified information is against the law.

Some of the more high-profile leaks in the Trump administration have revealed White House infighting in articles that would appear not to involve divulging classified information.

Sessions did not immediately give the identities of the four people charged, but said they had been accused of unlawfully disclosing classified information or concealing contacts with foreign intelligence officers.

Rosenstein did not give the exact number of leak investigations the Justice Department is currently handling, only that this number has tripled under the Trump administration.

In the latest major leak to the media, the Washington Post published transcripts on Thursday of contentious phone calls that Trump had in the early days of his administration with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

“No government can be effective when its leaders cannot discuss sensitive matters in confidence or to talk freely in confidence with foreign leaders,” Sessions said of that case.

One tool Sessions has for prosecuting leakers is the Espionage Act, a World War One-era law that was designed to stop leaks to America’s enemies. Federal prosecutors have used it 12 times to charge individuals for disclosing information to the media, eight of them under Democratic former President Barack Obama.

The most recent case, and the first under Trump, was the Justice Department’s indictment in June of Reality Leigh Winner, 25, a U.S. intelligence contractor accused of leaking a classified National Security Agency report about Russia’s alleged interference in the 2016 election.

[Reuters]