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.
Photo Credit: Sergei Karpukhin/REUTERS/Newscom