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The strange case began August 6, 2013 in Maryland when the Coast Guard executed a search warrant on one of its employees whose wife happened to be an investigative reporter. The stated purpose of the search was to look for weapons and ammunition which the Coast Guard employee was forbidden from owning.
But during the search, a Coast Guard official seized something that was not on the warrant and was definitely not in the category of firearms. Something that didn’t even belong to the Coast Guard employee in question, but to his wife, the investigative reporter: documents related to one of her investigative reports.
The reporter, Audrey Hudson, had written stories for the Washington Times about the Federal Air Marshal Service. Coincidentally, the Coast Guard investigator who allegedly seized the documents, Miguel Bosch, formerly worked at the Air Marshal Service during the time when Hudson wrote some of her stories.
During the search, Bosch allegedly asked Hudson whether she was the same Audrey Hudson who had written “the Air Marshal stories.”
A statement later released by the Coast Guard said the documents were seized because they were labeled “For Official Use Only” and “Law Enforcement Sensitive.” However, the statement said, the Coast Guard later determined the documents were properly obtained by Hudson through Freedom of Information requests. Among the documents were said to be Hudson’s work product including sensitive information about whistleblowers.
Hudson and the Washington Times sued, arguing the documents should never have been seized and that the labels on them were not national security classifications of any sort.
Senator Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, raised concerns in letters to the Coast Guard asking whether the original search warrant was obtained as a cover for what could have been the true (and improper) purpose: seizing records belonging to or harassing a reporter who had written articles about a federal agency.
According to Grassley, the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the Coast Guard, has now settled the lawsuit.
“This case seems to have had a positive outcome for the First Amendment, but the Department of Homeland Security’s claims that it did not record the names of individual whistleblowers before returning the documents cannot be checked…Further, it’s outrageous that the Department of Homeland Security seized non-classified documents from any individual’s custody without the authorization of a search warrant. Government agencies must be reminded in the future that unless documents are classified or prohibited from distribution by Congress, internal protections of information do not give an agency the authority to seize documents once they are outside of its control.”
The questionable seizure occurred three months after it was revealed that the Department of Justice had seized phone records of Associated Press journalists and Fox News reporter James Rosen in separate government leak investigations.
If the lawsuit settlement involved a payment to the reporter for alleged government misconduct, it would normally be made using taxpayer dollars.