Media

Trump Continues Obama's Pursuit of Leakers by Snooping on Media Contacts

Former Senate Intel Committee staffer charged with lying about relationships with reporters covering Carter Page investigation.

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Carter Page
Sergei Karpukhin/REUTERS/Newscom

It looks like Donald Trump's Department of Justice is continuing his predecessor's war on leaks, including when it results in secret snooping on journalists.

A former aide to the Senate Intelligence Committee, James A. Wolfe, has been arrested and charged with lying to the FBI about contacts with several reporters. One of them, Ali Watkins, a former BuzzFeed writer now working at The New York Times, had reported for BuzzFeed last year that Russian spies attempted to recruit former Trump aide Carter Page.

The Department of Justice was trying to track down who has been leaking information about these investigations. According to the indictment, Wolfe told the FBI he didn't have contact with several reporters (including Watkins) who had been writing about Page. That, the FBI says, is not true. Turns out Wolfe had dated Watkins for three years and they had a history of private communications.

The FBI had secretly seized records of Watkins' communications with Wolfe. According to The New York Times, they didn't have the contents of Watkins communications, just the metadata showing proof that they were in contact with each other. They do have the content of the communications on Wolfe's side, showing him sending positive messages to journalists about their reporting on Page. Their knowledge even extends messages sent via the encrypted app Signal. Watkins has said that Wolfe was not the source of the classified information she had received.

Wolfe has not, as of yet, been indicted for leaking. He is charged only with lying to FBI agents.

The media coverage is, predictably, very concerned that the Justice Department secretly collected records of Watkins' communications. From the Times' report:

News media advocates consider the idea of mining a journalist's records for sources to be an intrusion on First Amendment freedoms, and prosecutors acknowledge it is one of the most delicate steps the Justice Department can take. "Freedom of the press is a cornerstone of democracy, and communications between journalists and their sources demand protection," said Eileen Murphy, a Times spokeswoman.

Ms. Watkins's personal lawyer, Mark J. MacDougall, said: "It's always disconcerting when a journalist's telephone records are obtained by the Justice Department—through a grand jury subpoena or other legal process. Whether it was really necessary here will depend on the nature of the investigation and the scope of any charges."

If the manner by which the Justice Department pursued these records sounds familiar, it should: Something similar happened in 2013 when the Justice Department collected two months of phone records from Associated Press reporters to try to track down the source of a leak about a CIA operation in Yemen.

President Barack Obama's Department of Justice set the stage for this behavior, so this isn't a case of Trump "normalizing" snooping on the press. This was normalized under Obama.

In other contexts, there's been a tendency for people in the media to scream outrage over behavior by the Trump administration that was downplayed when Obama did the same thing. But that isn't the case here. A lot of the establishment press loved Obama, but not as much as it loved itself. The Obama administration's ruthless efforts to track down and prosecute leakers (or at least those who leaked without the administration's approval) got significant media coverage during his administration. And the Times coverage of Wolfe's arrest does not ignore how Obama got this ball rolling.

Given how leaky the government is under the Trump administration, we may see future arrests like this. It's an important reminder for leakers and journalists alike to be careful with your communication systems and operational security. If you use encrypted methods to talk to the press (or with sources), make sure you know how they actually work.

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31 responses to “Trump Continues Obama's Pursuit of Leakers by Snooping on Media Contacts

  1. “Given how leaky the government is under the Trump administration, we may see future arrests like this. It’s an important reminder for leakers and journalists alike to be careful with your communication systems and operational security. If you use encrypted methods to talk to the press (or with sources), make sure you know how they actually work.”

    Also, stop fucking up investigations by leaking shit you know will get you thrown in prison if you’re caught.

    My advice is better.

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  2. They didn’t raise too much hell when Obama was doing it.

    I guess they don’t really care about the 1st and 4th Amendment protections.

    1. But…but…most transparent president, ever!!!1!

    2. We’ve given the government almost carte blanche ability to surveil people. Of course any President is likely to abuse this power in some way or the other. The issue isn’t that Trump spies on the media or the FBI spied on Trump. Those things are just different degrees of the same abuse of power.

      The issue is that we’ve given this power to politicians in the first place. But you won’t hear Trump, Obama, most other pols, or even most media outlets ever suggest that the government shouldn’t have this power in the first place. In fact you’ll hear them all defend it in terms of national security and then only talk about it negatively when it is used against them.

      1. Indeed. It’s a travesty and a clear violation of everyone’s rights but no one gives a shit.

      2. The 4th Amendment is clear. No domestic spying without a warrant based upon probable cause. People are to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects [period]

        1. Yeah, right.
          So all the reporting on asset forfeiture is fake news, then?

        2. No domestic spying without a warrant based upon probable cause.

          It doesn’t say anything like that.

          People are to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects [period]

          No, not “period”. “…from unreasonable search and seizure.”

          Communications metadata, and even verbal content, is not persons, houses, papers, or effects or any technological extension thereof. Email or text message content could be argued to be an extension of “papers” but that’s not a slam dunk either.

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  4. Frankly, I can’t in the slightest get upset about this. James Wolfe was in charge of handling the documents for the Senate Intelligence Committee and he was leaking like a sieve for years.

    1. Yeah, this is not whistle blowing. This is simple leaking. There is no claim of malfeasance here.

    2. And Scott forgot to mention that Wolfe, age 57, was having an affair with Watkins, age 26. This guy ain’t Edward Snowden. He leaked classified information to further his young paramour’s career, not save the republic.

      1. Buzzfeed did not mention it in their reporting, though they very much were aware of it.

        All leaks are not noble. If Trump was committing crimes, then yes, leak it. This was simply “Well, these are documents from the investigation”. There is no reason to leak those.

  5. I’m pretty sure that this is an accurate depiction of the current situation with America’s deep state.

  6. I think it’s important to remember that journalists don’t actually have any special rights in this regard. Not constitutionally, nor, at the federal government, statutory.

    If they can do it to a regular guy, a reporter is just as vulnerable.

    And, that’s the way it should be. Equal rights for all, and if the law is to be enforced, you actually have to have things like subpoenas.

    1. Equal rights for all

      That’s one vote for Pres. Trump being subject to a subpoena, one vote for Pres. Trump being eligible for indictment, one vote against vague, expansive executive claims.

      1. Yeah no shit, Kirkland. Next you’re going to tell us that we all think you’re a creepy racist with the interpersonal skills of a cocaine-binging wolverine and a gigantic rape fetish..

  7. Mining journalist records may be an intrusion on the 1st Amendment, but these days 95 to 98 percent of so-called journalists are Democrat propaganda agents and traitors to the USA. They’re no better than German or Russian spies in the 1940’s.

    1. I tend to agree with the 5th element and spy part but the correct method is to get a warrant from a judge for violations of law and then charge them.

      The media is not simply giving or printing their opinions. They tend to actively usurp the Constitution in every way that they can think of.

      1. Watching disaffected, no-count goobers nip at the ankles of their accomplished, educated, productive betters can be fine sport.

        1. Watching lefties babble uncontrollably is a fine sport too.

          1. The first couple of times maybe. After that it just gets boring. And we’re on 10,000 with the self-appelated reverend.


  8. According to The New York Times, they didn’t have the contents of Watkins communications, just the metadata showing proof that they were in contact with each other. They do have the content of the communications on Wolfe’s side, showing him sending positive messages to journalists about their reporting on Page. Their knowledge even extends messages sent via the encrypted app Signal.

    Gosh, if only anyone had warned us that giving the government omnipotent power would have bad results…

    But I thought that metadata was harmless, right? We’ve only been told that like a thousand times now. Guess they were lying, whodathunkit?

    1. They do have the content of the communications on Wolfe’s side, showing him sending positive messages to journalists about their reporting on Page.

      A citizen expressing opinions? Opinions that salute reporting on matters of public concern?

      1. Citizen expressing opinions? James Wolfe was the Senate Intelligence Committee security director. He leaked to his girlfriend so she could further her career by ramping up the Russian Meddling narrative and get himself some sweet 26 year old poontang. Jesus you’re a tiresome asshole.

  9. gov’t eating press = cannibalism?

  10. Did the FBI secretly seize or is did they get permission from a judge since they already had proof of communication by having Wolf’s legaly obtained phone? If it was in secret then that is a crime just as inserting a spy into Trumps campaign was. As usual there is much more then what is being told here and I think possibly for biased reason we don’t have the whole story yet

  11. I don’t see why professional journalists should be a privileged class in regard to surveillance.

    Press is an activity, not a group of people, so the First Amendment argument falls flat. If the govt can surveil the rest of us, they should be able to do it to journalists too.

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