WASHINGTON – A Coast Guard investigator accompanying Maryland State Police to serve a search warrant in a weapons investigation at a Maryland home seized unrelated government documents and notes from a journalist who was the suspect's wife. The Coast Guard said its investigator was suspicious that the government documents were labeled "law enforcement sensitive."
The government subsequently returned the papers after concluding the reporter had obtained them under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act.
The seizure comes amid ongoing criticism of the Obama administration's efforts to root out leaks in the administration and the targeting of journalists as part of those leak investigations. It happened one month after Attorney General Eric Holder toughened the Justice Department's own rules for seizing reporters' phone records, notes or emails using federal subpoenas or search warrants.
According to court records and interviews by The Associated Press, Special Agent Miguel Bosch of the Coast Guard Investigative Service took the records of Audrey Hudson, a former Washington Times reporter and freelance author, during a search for guns and related items owned by her husband, a Coast Guard employee. She said Bosch asked whether she wrote a series of stories critical of the Federal Air Marshal program in the mid-2000s. Hudson said Bosch identified himself to her as a former air marshal official, and Bosch lists his previous service with that agency on his publicly accessible LinkedIn profile.
Bosch, whose signature appears on a log of evidence from the search, could not immediately be reached for comment. A woman who answered the phone at his home said he was not taking calls Friday night.
The Washington Times said Friday it is preparing legal action to fight what it called an unwarranted intrusion on the First Amendment.
"While we appreciate law enforcement's right to investigate legitimate concerns, there is no reason for agents to use an unrelated gun case to seize the First Amendment protected materials of a reporter," Times Editor John Solomon said.
In a brief telephone conversation with the Times, Bosch declined to comment except to say, "it's still an open investigation."
Hudson said the seized records included U.S. documents and handwritten and typed notes. She said she and her husband were told that "miscellaneous documents" had been seized during the search of their home in August but didn't realize what was taken until the documents were returned.
The incident was first reported by The Daily Caller website.
Holder revised the government's rules for seizing reporters' records after criticism over the Justice Department's seizure earlier this year of phone records from 20 phone lines used by the AP covering parts of two months as part a federal leaks investigation.
A Coast Guard spokesman, Carlos Diaz, said the records seized were labeled "For Official Use Only" and "Law Enforcement Sensitive" — which do not mean they were classified — and appeared out of place. He said the investigator properly documented the seized records, and the documents were returned after concluding Hudson obtained them under the Freedom of Information Act. The search warrant authorized police to search the family's home for guns, ammunition, records of gun purchases, gun cleaning kits and other gun-related documents.
A former U.S. prosecutor, Mark Rasch, said the U.S. Privacy Protection Act generally prohibits the search or seizure of files of journalists without approval by the deputy attorney general.
"On balance they were wrong in taking the documents," Rasch said. "It may very well be an honest mistake, but it's a mistake they shouldn't repeat."