Leak of the Week: Senate Security Staffer Sneaks Secrets to Sweetheart

Intelligence

In case the charges brought against Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn and lobbyist Paul Manafort haven’t made this plainly obvious already, don’t lie to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. It will only hurt you in the long run. Section 1001 of title 18 of the United States Code makes it a crime punishable by up to five years in prison to lie to organizations like the FBI.

Also, don’t rely on “anonymous” electronic communications methods like WhatsApp or Signal. Someone somewhere has a record of those communications, and the government will find them if it wants to.

The latest person to learn this lesson happens to be a leaker extrordinaire.

Army Intelligence to Senate Intelligence

According to an indictment unsealed last Thursday, James A. Wolfe, a former Army Intelligence officer, lied to the FBI about contacts with reporters covering the Senate Intelligence Committee. The committee fulfills a critical oversight role, serving as the eyes and ears of Congress to monitor the activities of the intelligence services it funds. Wolfe served as its director of security from May 1987 until December 2017.

The committee, along with its House of Representatives counterpart, was created in 1975 following shocking revelations about the activities of the CIA and other intel agencies uncovered by the Church Committee, a Senate panel led by Idaho Democratic Sen. Frank Church, as well as the Pike Committee in the House and the Rockefeller Commission in the executive branch.

Under its current chairman, Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), the committee has been investigating the accusations that President Donald Trump’s campaign colluded with the Russian government to affect the outcome of the 2016 presidential election. As the man protected with safeguarding the committee’s secrets, Wolfe had access to all of the committee’s work.

The government alleges that Wolfe leaked details of the investigation to three reporters, and lied to the FBI about it. But it gets better. One of the reporters, “REPORTER #2” in the indictment, is a real-life Zoe Barnes.

Sleeping with a source

Reporters are just as capable of employing the “honeytrap” as spies are.

Everyone who works in Washington has watched the Netflix series “House of Cards.” For those of you who haven’t, Zoe Barnes was a central character (played by Kate Mara, the real-life cousin of Republican Congressman Tom Rooney of Florida) in the first two seasons, who carried on a romantic relationship with Kevin Spacey’s character Francis Underwood. She did so expressly to get information she could publish.

Reporter #2 has since been identified as Ali Watkins, who covered the intel committee for BuzzFeed and the New York Times. Ironically, Watkins tweeted in June of 2013 that she “wanted to be Zoe Barnes” until the episode where Barnes began sleeping with Underwood. She wrote this mere months before beginning her romantic relationship with Wolfe.

When the two became involved in 2013, Wolfe was 53, while Watkins was still a college student working as an intern for “several different news organizations covering national security matters, including matters relating to” the intel committee. As a full-time reporter, Watkins covered the committee and published several scoops about witnesses including Trump campaign aid Carter Page (MALE-1 in the indictment).

Wolfe is not charged with leaking any classified information itself, just lying to the FBI during his interviews about the leaks. It would appear that the government is holding those charges in reserve, since, at the very least, the information on Carter Page was classified Secret, and other information in the same document was classified Top Secret.

Shifting the blame

This case includes aspects to make almost everyone uneasy. The media are up in arms that the Department of Justice subpoenaed Watkins’s phone records and at least some of her emails in the course of the investigation. First Amendment purists view this as a violation of the sanctity of the reporter-source relationship. But that protection does not extend to the source.

I have written many times about how there are proper ways to blow the whistle, and going to the press is almost never one of them. If there’s one lesson from the “Pentagon Papers” case, it’s that while the press has the right to publish classified information it comes to possess, the people providing it can and will be prosecuted. And while the District of Columbia and 39 of the 50 states have some form of “shield law” on the books to protect reporters from being forced to reveal their sources, there is no such law at the federal level.

In fact, the Supreme Court ruled in 1972 that reporters cannot refuse to answer grand jury questions if they witnessed a crime. One would assume that receiving what is clearly classified information would constitute witnessing a crime.

The case also lends more ammunition to those who charge there is a “deep state” conspiracy to derail the president’s agenda, and that the press is deliberately aiding that conspiracy by lying to the public.

Wolfe’s tenure with the committee as a nonpartisan professional staff member spanned nearly three decades, six presidential administrations, and several changes in control of the Senate. He is the embodiment of what people outside the beltway think of when they think of “swamp creatures.”

And while he was leaking committee secrets to the press, his girlfriend was working to blame the Trump administration for those same leaks.

In September 2017, Watkins took to Twitter to add some “context” to news coming out of the committee. “Senate Intel has been SOOO frustrated in recent weeks by the constant dribble of leaks about who’s testifying to them, when,” she wrote. “The [committee’s] read is, Trumpster lawyers will leak info about upcoming appearances, blame the committee, then use as a pretext not to cooperate.”

Go back and read that again. A reporter for the New York Times, the nation’s “paper of record,” was not only sleeping with the man responsible for guarding the Senate Intelligence Committee’s secrets and publishing privileged and possibly classified information he was providing her, she actively tried to blame “Trumpster lawyers” for those very leaks.

There’s really only one word to describe what Watkins did: lying. And it’s inexcusable. If she continues to have a career in journalism, it will taint any organization that employs her. Her behavior has almost single-handedly confirmed many people’s fears that the press is deliberately deceiving them.

Fake news” may be an overused phrase, but in this case, it’s a fitting one.

Tom McCuin is a strategic communication consultant and retired Army Reserve Civil Affairs and Public Affairs officer whose career includes serving with the Malaysian Battle Group in Bosnia, two tours in Afghanistan, and three years in the Office of the Chief of Public Affairs in the Pentagon. When he’s not devouring political news, he enjoys sailboat racing and umpiring Little League games (except the ones his son plays in) in Alexandria, Va. Follow him on Twitter at @tommccuin

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