September 25, 2018

US - #WeeklyAddress: September 11 - September 23: Justice Department's Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act allows US government to secretly surveil journalists

Below are the most notable incidents regarding threats to press freedom in the US during the week of September 11 - September 23:

Justice Department’s Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act allows US government to secretly surveil journalists

According to documents released by the Freedom of the Press Foundation on September 17, the Justice Department has allowed the federal government to monitor journalists and evade traditional court procedures secretly through the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) since as early as 2013. The FISA procedure is far less rigorous than the Justice Department’s usual “media guidelines” for obtaining subpoenas, court orders, and warrants against journalists. It also allows for more sweeping searches and surveillance of information and communications. These documents–acquired by the organization as part of a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit–detail FISA court rules that civil society organizations have long suspected were being used to surveil journalists. As the current administration has vowed to intensify leak investigations, press freedom advocates are rightfully wary of FISA court rules that require an even lower threshold, and which the government had kept secret.



First Amendment Coalition sues DOJ to obtain records related to seizure of journalist’s records

The First Amendment Coalition (FAC) sued the Justice Department in a San Francisco federal court on September 19 under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to obtain Department records related to the government’s seizure of New York Times reporter Ali Watkins’ communications. Watkins had her records seized in connection with a leak investigation into James Wolfe, a senior aide to the Senate Intelligence Committee with whom Watkins secretly had a three-year relationship. The reporter had covered the Senate Intelligence Committee for a number of news organizations prior to joining The Times. Although the Justice Department sent Watkins a letter saying her private records had been seized in February, it had already been collecting her information for months and did not send her a customary “noticed” subpoena, which allows the recipient to challenge the collection of sensitive information before a court. According to the Justice Department’s internal media guidelines, only in extreme circumstances can the government obtain records without issuing a notice. This is the first known case of a reporter’s records being seized under the Trump administration, but it was a tactic also employed by former President Barack Obama.



The United States ranks 45th out of 180 countries in RSF's 2018 World Press Freedom Index after falling 2 places in the last year.



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