One of the leakers has been caught, folks!
Yesterday a long-time Senate staffer, who worked for the Senate Intelligence Committee, was arrested on charges of lying to investigators.
Those investigators were probing the leaks of classified information to reporters.
A grand jury indicted the staffer, whose name is James Wolfe, on three counts of making false statements. Those false statements were made in December, and included statements about his contacts with reporters. Wolfe had been providing sensitive information to a contact at the New York Times, particularly info about the business of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Wolfe was security director of the SIC for 29 years. He was arrested on Thursday and is expected to appear in court in Maryland today.
Wolfe’s arrest comes only a day after the full Senate authorized the Justice Department to take action to stop leaks from the SIC. By Washington standards, that is an astonishingly fast turnaround.
Also, last night, the New York Times reported that the phone and email records of one of its journalists had been seized by the Justice Department in February, as part of this ongoing investigation. That reporter was named Ali Watkins.
Watkins had a three year romantic relationship with James Wolfe, and although she told the New York Times that he was not a source of classified information for her, you gotta be pretty naive to believe that line.
The Times is claiming that the government’s seizure of Watkins records will “undermine the ability of a free press to shine a much needed light on government actions.” But I very much doubt that.
As long as there are intrepid young 20-something reporters willing to do a little bump and grind with middle-aged bureaucrats, there will always be a fresh stream of juicy “news” for the Times to churn out to our geopolitical enemies.
The Wolfe case is particularly interesting though. This guy, as the Senate Intelligence Committee’s security director, was the one entrusted with all the confidentiality procedure for all member offices and staffers. In other words, he was the guy whose job it was to make sure there were no leaks.
How ironic then, that he himself was the leaker.
James Wolfe is alleged to have leaked classified intel about a number of ongoing SIC matters, including the Russia probe. According to his indictment, a classified document was presented to the Senate Intelligence Committee in March of last year that involved a person referred to as “Male 1.”
Wolfe “received, maintained and managed” that document, on behalf of the SIC. That night, he sent 82 text messages to a reporter, and also spoke to her over the phone. On April 3, an article was published under her byline which revealed the identity of “Male 1.”
That reporter was Ali Watkins. Wolfe, in a clear and flagrant violation of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s rules, was placed on leave on December 15th, 2017, the same day he was interviewed by the FBI in connection with the leak of the “Male 1” story. His access to SIC resources and materials was revoked. But he was set to retire anyway in 2018.
No doubt Wolfe felt he could get away with a few leaks towards the end of his career, especially if it brought him attention from a young reporter looking to make a name for herself on the DC intelligence beat.
Pro-journalism orgs are making a big stink about the Trump administration’s increasing efforts to plug these kinds of intelligence leaks. But the policy of targeting journalists in leak investigations began during the Obama era. (And if you look into it, you’ll find many instances where the Obama White House clashed with journalists over transparency issues.)
But investigating the journalists makes sense. They are the ones who ultimately disseminate the classified information to the public, and their records will always contain traces of the people who were their sources.
There’s an argument to be had here over whether freedom of the press outweighs the right of government to keep its operations secret. In general, leaks that simply make the government look bad or reveal waste, fraud, and abuse are not a bad thing, and we should want journalists to be able to find and reveal those stories.
But many leaks also make the government less effective at doing its job, especially leaks that reveal our intelligence collection procedures to rival nations. Other leaks give foreign spies an inside view of the operations of our government, making it easier for them to collect information that could be very damaging or provide material allowing for blackmail of government employees.
In general, the press and the state will always be at odds, with both sides trying to assert their right to spy on and supervise the other. The question the Ancient Romans were asking themselves is still relevant today: “Quis custodet ipsos custodes?”
Who oversees the overseers?