But there are exceptions: The guidelines say that the Justice Department can secretly obtain records if prior notice could threaten an investigation, or if there could be “grave harm to national security” or “imminent risk of death or serious bodily harm.”
Even if the guidelines are not followed, journalists have little recourse beyond a public outcry. The Justice Department guidelines are the equivalent of an in-house ethics handbook: They do not carry the weight of law, and news organizations would be hard-pressed to make a legal case if they were violated.
At the Justice Department meeting last Wednesday, which had been previously scheduled, Mr. Rosenstein did not mention the seizure of Ms. Watkins’s records. (Justice Department officials do not typically discuss ongoing investigations.) Mr. Rosenstein told the group that the department was continuing to contemplate changes to its rules on journalist subpoenas, according to a summary provided by Ms. Flores.
Media advocates said they were worried that law enforcement officials could start obtaining journalists’ records as a first step, rather than a last resort, exposing communications with any number of confidential sources. “Leak investigations are absolutely intended to have a chilling effect on leaks,” Mr. Miller said. “That’s a perfectly legitimate objective from the government’s point of view. You don’t want people to leak classified information.”
Mr. Miller added that the electronic tools that are part and parcel of modern reporting, like emails, text messages and encrypted messaging apps, are more easily traceable than the methods used by investigative reporters like Bob Woodward in the 1970s.
“The Watergate leave-a-flower-pot-on-the-balcony, analog communication style to produce leaks is just not how the world works anymore,” Mr. Miller said.
Floyd Abrams, the famed First Amendment lawyer, said he was surprised that it had taken this long into Mr. Trump’s tenure for a reporter’s records to be seized. “I don’t think I’m alone in having expected more than this torrent of rhetorical attacks on the press,” he said in an interview.