Trump Finds New Weapon for His War on Journalism — Leak Indictments Aimed at Smearing Reporters

The Intercept
July 15, 2018

Last month, James Wolfe was indicted for lying to the FBI about his contacts with four reporters while he worked for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. His indictment, and the media coverage of it, focused to a lopsided extent on just one of the reporters: Ali Watkins, who the indictment revealed to have been Wolfe’s girlfriend for several years.

While the 11-page indictment provided no information about the other reporters, there was an abundance on Watkins, who is 26 years old and was referred to as “Reporter #2.” It noted that she started her career in Washington, D.C. as “an intern with a news service” (McClatchy Newspapers), and went on to work for “several different news organizations covering national security” (the Huffington Post, BuzzFeed News, and Politico). The indictment stated that her relationship with the middle-aged Wolfe began in December 2013 and lasted until December 2017. During that time, Watkins published dozens of articles about the intelligence committee, of which Wolfe was the director of security.

The indictment had a TMZ vibe. It noted that Watkins and Wolfe “frequently met in person at a variety of locations.” Where? In stairwells at a Senate office building, in restaurants, and in her apartment. The two even traveled overseas together, according to the indictment. They also exchanged tens of thousands of text messages, emails, and phone calls, once swapping 82 texts in a single day. The Department of Justice knew all of this, in part, because it had secretly obtained years of Watkins’s email and phone records — an exceptional intrusion into a reporter’s life.

Curiously, the cagily worded indictment does not suggest that Wolfe disclosed anything to Watkins that was more sensitive than what he allegedly disclosed to the other reporters. Why did Watkins get the lion’s share of attention in the indictment even though, from a legal perspective, she does not appear to be the most important reporter in it? None of the information Wolfe allegedly discussed with Watkins was classified — though the FBI asked Wolfe if he provided classified information to an unnamed “Reporter #1.” The indictment provides no professional or personal information about that reporter, however; there is no clue about their identity.

Rather than aggressively questioning why the Justice Department went out of its way to tar Watkins, the media largely treated the case as a steamy sex scandal that could have been an episode of “House of Cards” – a young female reporter in Washington, D.C. sleeps with a powerful older man who can provide sensitive information. This framing was extremely harmful to Watkins, who was widely criticized for breaking a rule in journalism about sleeping with sources, and it was harmful to journalism in general – this is how reporters actually go about their work, the indictment suggested. Trump supporters on Twitter were not shy about making that point.

The Watkins case appears to reveal a new tactic in the Trump administration’s war on journalism. In addition to the president describing journalists as an “enemy of the people” and “the most dishonest people,” his Justice Department is using indictments of alleged leakers to peddle incidental information that is legally beside the point but smears the standing and credibility of reporters who publish stories that criticize or annoy the White House (especially stories about Russian interference in the U.S. election system).

It’s a cunning enhancement of the Obama administration’s war on journalists. In one of its most important leak prosecutions, Barack Obama’s Justice Department tried to force then-New York Times reporter James Risen to disclose the identity of one of his sources. Risen, who now works for The Intercept, refused to cooperate and risked going to jail, a struggle that turned him into a widely lauded defender of press freedom. While the offensive against Risen included negative insinuations about the reliability of his work, the government was primarily focused on getting him to say whether former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling was a source for his revelation of a botched covert operation against Iran. The Trump administration is dispensing with the tell-us-your-source goal, craftily focusing instead on using its leak indictments to disseminate information that it hopes will damage the reputations of bothersome reporters.

Jane Kirtley, a professor of media ethics and law at the University of Minnesota, was struck by the amount of information about Watkins in the Wolfe indictment. “Because of the questions of her personal conduct, [prosecutors] are able to plant the seed that her motives were not honorable, maybe they were to advance her career. None of this is relevant from a legal perspective. … [Prosecutors] don’t want the reporter to be portrayed as seeking truth and reporting it to the public. They want to characterize her as someone lacking in morality.”

IF THE PURPOSE of the indictment was to undermine journalists in general, it succeeded admirably, with a large number of news organizations taking the bait, including the New York Times, which hired Watkins as a staff writer late last year. In response to the indictment, the Times has published several stories about Watkins’ relationship with Wolfe, including a triple-bylined 3,300-word article, titled “How an Affair Between a Reporter and a Security Aide Has Rattled Washington Media.” That story was three times longer than the Times’s famous investigation of its erroneous coverage of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction before the invasion of Iraq. The Washington Post also published several articles about the case that focused largely on Watkins, as did many other publications.

While most of these articles noted that the case involved an unsalacious issue that was crucially important — the government secretly seizing records of a reporter’s communications — the invasion of privacy got far less attention. The Trump administration succeeded in getting the media to focus on the derogatory baubles that had been slipped into the indictment. Indeed, it’s hard to see how the inclusion of so many details about Watkins’ relationship with Wolfe had any purpose other than to shift attention onto her sex life and away from what the government did to get so much information about her. As the Washington Post accurately noted, the romance was “a twist that introduces questions about journalism ethics and could buttress Trump’s characterization of reporters as creatures of the Washington swamp who will do anything for scoops.”

This is not the first time the Trump administration used a leak indictment to make unflattering allegations about reporters. In the first leak prosecution of the Trump era, former National Security Agency contractor Reality Winner was indicted under the Espionage Act for disclosing a classified document (Winner has pleaded guilty). A search warrant that was released with Winner’s indictment included details about the manner in which the news organization she allegedly leaked to had sent the NSA a copy of the document for verification. The warrant said the copy showed the original document had been folded, which suggested that the leaker had printed it out from a work computer.

The inclusion of this information did not appear to serve any legal purpose. Why was it there? What seems likely is that it was intended to suggest, misleadingly, that the news organization inadvertently provided the crucial clue that led the government to Winner. The news organization is widely reported to be The Intercept, which around the time of Winner’s arrest published a top-secret document on Russian hacking of U.S. election systems. While The Intercept has acknowledged that its document-handling practices were not as careful as they should have been, the government had an abundance of methods to track down Winner. Particularly since Edward Snowden leaked a large cache of NSA documents in 2013, government agencies have increased surveillance of their own workers, including monitoring their computers, printers, and work spaces, tracking the printing and viewing histories of certain documents, and even dropping decoy documents into their systems as bait for potential leakers. Winner would almost certainly have been found whether or not The Intercept sent the NSA that particular copy of the document.

The stakes in Trump’s war on journalism go far beyond the reputations of the journalists who have been targeted so far, or the fates of their sources. These attacks are an effort to diminish the overall flow of vital information to the public — they send a message to potential sources that they will be prosecuted, and they send a message to investigative journalists that they will be smeared. In fact, in a memo about one of his meetings with Trump, former FBI Director James Comey wrote that he reminded the president of “the value of putting a head on a pike as a message” to leakers and journalists to stop publishing sensitive information.

The problem with Trump’s war on journalists (and Comey’s encouragement of it), is that leaks are often the only way that the public learns of things that rightfully belong in the public realm — for instance, the Pentagon Papers, which revealed the truth of what the government knew was happening in the Vietnam War. Trump has denied or downplayed the role of Russian interference in the 2016 election, and his administration has kept a lid on disclosing what the government knows. The leaked document published by The Intercept made clear that the NSA had evidence Russia tried to hack the U.S. voting system; a Senate report and election officials acknowledged that media reports played a key role in alerting them to the threat, and the latest Russian indictment from Special Counsel Robert Mueller relies in part on information that was in the Winner document.

In its final year, the Obama administration appeared to pull back from some of the worst parts of its crackdown on journalists. The final leak prosecution of Obama’s presidency was against retired Gen. James Cartwright, who pleaded guilty to making false statements about providing classified information on Iran to David Sanger of the New York Times and Daniel Klaidman of Newsweek. (Obama pardoned Cartwright before sentencing.) The Justice Department’s two-page information filing in that case mentions Sanger and Klaidman once, saying nothing about their contacts with Cartwright — how often they talked, when, where, whether they went out for beers together, whether the reporters left any trails of phone calls or emails that helped the government figure out that Cartwright had leaked to them. There was no attempt to disparage Sanger or Klaidman.

The Wolfe indictment shows that the era of disparagement campaigns is back. The long-term consequences for Watkins are unclear. Earlier this month, the Times announced that she had been reassigned from Washington, D.C. to a new position in New York, where she would have the guidance of a mentor. Her reassignment was reported in a 950-word story that revealed that the paper’s executive editor, Dean Baquet, had written a memo to the staff about Watkins. The paper also published the 575-word memo.

Author: Peter Maass

I was born and raised in Los Angeles. In 1983, after graduating from the University of California at Berkeley, I went to Brussels as a copy editor for The Wall Street Journal/Europe. I left the Journal in 1985 to write for The New York Times and The International Herald Tribune, covering NATO and the European Union. In 1987 I moved to Seoul, South Korea, where I wrote primarily for The Washington Post. After three years in Asia I moved to Budapest to cover Eastern Europe and the Balkans. I spent most of 1992 and 1993 covering the war in Bosnia for the Post.