I’m wrapping up my first full year at Daily Intel, and leakers have done their best to make the job easy. So with a tip of my cap to those government officials and contractors who just can’t keep their mouths shut, here’s a look back at three of the top five leaks of the past year. See if you can spot the recurring themes.
Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team has gained a reputation for keeping their cards close to the vest. That reputation might be a little exaggerated. In case anyone forgot, 2018 began with a leak from someone in or close to the investigation. This leak not only undermined the media’s original narrative of how the FBI’s counterintelligence investigation into Russian meddling began, it embarrassed a key “Five-Eyes” ally.
In October 2017, former Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russians. In January, we learned from a leaker that during an evening of drinking at a London wine bar, Papadopoulos had boasted to Australia’s top diplomat in London, Alexander Downer, that the campaign had emails that would prove embarrassing to Hillary Clinton.
After Wikileaks published emails stolen from the Democratic National Committee, Downer understandably reported his conversation to the U.S. intelligence community. The revelation of this news not only needlessly drew a key ally into our domestic political squabbles, it also challenged the standing narrative that it was Carter Page who spurred the investigation.
While the investigation itself continues (so far with no evidence of any so-called “collusion” between the Trump campaign and Russian officials), for his part, Papadopoulos received a 14-day sentence, which her served at the end of November.
When President Donald Trump picked Mike Pompeo, then his Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, to replace Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State, BuzzFeed thought it had a story sure to spike his promotion. Under Pompeo’s watch, the CIA had deployed “small teams of commandos to kill selected suspected terrorists.” The world reacted with a yawn.
As I wrote then, of course the CIA has teams who pursue and kill high-value terrorist targets. It’s been one of their primary missions since September 11, 2001. The officials who leaked this story to BuzzFeed merely confirmed, despite the Agency’s predictable and perfunctory denial, what everyone knew was happening. BuzzFeed hoped the story would help people take it seriously as a hard-hitting investigative news outlet, and maybe even as the publication that brought Pompeo to his knees.
Neither has happened. What it proved was that young, uninformed reporters fundamentally misunderstand what will get most people angry. Hint: stories about the CIA secretly killing bad guys doesn’t make most Americans angry; those stories help them, as the saying goes, “sleep peaceably in their beds at night… because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.”
If there’s one lesson we can all take away from the last two years, it’s “don’t [expletive] lie to the [expletive] FBI.” James A. Wolfe, the former director of security for the Senate Intelligence Committee, ignored the experiences of Michael Flynn, George Papadopoulos, and others, and found himself in legal trouble. In June, he was charged with lying to the FBI during an investigation into who on the committee had been leaking information to the press.
While no one has clearly established that Wolfe was the primary leaker, what was established was that he had been carrying on a romantic affair with a real-life Zoe Barnes. Ali Watkins, who had years before expressed her desire to be like the House of Cards character who slept with Kevin Spacey’s character to get information, was a reporter from BuzzFeed, and later the New York Times, covering the committee.
Not only was Wolfe feeding information to his girlfriend, she was then actively trying to blame the leaks on “Trumpster lawyers.”
Wolfe pleaded guilty to the charges, which did not include the leak of any classified information, in October. On December 20, he was sentenced to two months in prison. For her part, Watkins remains employed by the Old Grey Lady, but no longer covers Washington. Executive Editor Dean Baquet announced in July that he was reassigning Watkins to New York, “for a fresh start, where she will be closely supervised and have a senior mentor.”
At least she didn’t meet the same fate as Zoe Barnes.
Have a safe and happy New Year’s Eve, and come back tomorrow for the rest of our leak retrospective.