To Catch a State Department Leaker, the FBI Got White House Phone Records

New details of the Justice Department's investigation of a leak to a Fox News reporter demonstrate the scale of the inquiry: phone records, access badge information for the media, a CD of phone recordings. All to investigate a leak of incorrect information.

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New details of the Justice Department's investigation of a leak to a Fox News reporter demonstrate the scale of the inquiry: a broad sweep of phone records, access badge information for a numerous State Department employees and the media, and a CD of phone recordings. All to investigate a leak that, ultimately, contained incorrect information.

The New Yorker's Ryan Lizza obtained a copy of the discovery documents in the case of Stephen Jin-Woo Kim. Kim is accused by the Department of Justice of having leaked a classified memo concerning North Korea to Fox News' James Rosen. A search warrant filed with Google revealed an initial set of information about the investigation, including the FBI's seizure of phone records and use of State Department access badges to establish a timeline of Kim's interaction with Rosen, who the FBI apparently considers a co-conspirator to the crime.

Lizza's document provides much more detail. For example, Lizza counts 28 separate phone lines for which the FBI sought records. Those include numbers associated with Fox Business Channel, Fox News' Washington Bureau, the State Department, various cell phone numbers — and the (202) 456 exchange, which is used by the White House. One of the numbers was apparently for Rosen's parents' house in Staten Island. Buried in the document is one more bit of evidence the FBI acquired:

One CD containing .wav files of recordings related to the telephone numbers indicated in the .wav file name, labeled "U.S. v. Stephen Jin Kim, Discovery Disc #8, Recordings, US-00 14653."

The content of those recordings isn't known, but it's likely that they're voicemails.

The FBI also sought information on a half dozen Yahoo email accounts (Kim used a personal Yahoo account) and several from Gmail. In some cases, that request includes IP addresses of the computers used to access the account.

The FBI acquired a great deal of information from the State Department, where Kim worked and Rosen had a desk. That data included video footage from the building and badge records for a multiple-month period. The badge records, which presumably contained data on when people used badges to enter and exit the building, included far more than just Kim. In one discovery letter, the U. S. Attorney prosecuting the case describes the records as being for "individuals who were employees, contractors, and/or detailees to the Department of State's Bureau of Verification, Compliance, and Implementation." Those records stretch from March 1, 2009, to September 30 of that year. Lizza indicates that those records went further still.

According to another document in the case, “the United States has also produced a CD containing voluminous [Department of State] badge records for media personnel for the period March 1, 2009, through September 30, 2009.”

That document isn't included in the discovery documents included in his article, which can be read at the bottom of this post.

Yesterday, Foreign Policy magazine added a new wrinkle to the case. The report from Rosen that triggered the Department of Justice's sweeping investigation indicated that North Korea, annoyed by new UN sanctions, would respond with an atomic test. It didn't.

On June 12, the day after Rosen published his story, the U.N. Security Council passed the beefed-up sanctions package referenced in the article. But North Korea didn't carry out another nuclear test until February 2012. That suggests the CIA's source in North Korea may not have been reliable or clued into official thinking, which would have made the job of our hypothetical North Korean intelligence agent charged with finding the CIA's source inside the country much more difficult.

In other words, if part of the government's motivation for cracking down on the intelligence leak was to protect the identity of its North Korean source, that source probably wasn't close enough to North Korean leadership to warrant suspicion anyway.

The scope of the Justice Department's investigation in the Rosen-Kim case has prompted an outpouring of support from members of the media, particularly given the possibility that Rosen himself, a reporter, could face charges for reporting. An editorial in The Times this morning summarizes the media's concern.

Obama administration officials often talk about the balance between protecting secrets and protecting the constitutional rights of a free press. Accusing a reporter of being a “co-conspirator,” on top of other zealous and secretive investigations, shows a heavy tilt toward secrecy and insufficient concern about a free press.

Or, as The Washington Post's Dana Millbank put it: "The Rosen affair is as flagrant an assault on civil liberties as anything done by George W. Bush’s administration, and it uses technology to silence critics in a way Richard Nixon could only have dreamed of."

The Rosen-Kim discovery documents, via The New Yorker.

Photo: A North Korea soldier watches the DMZ through binoculars. (AP)

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.