On the James Wolfe Indictment: Don’t Forget Carter Page

Last night, DOJ unsealed the indictment of James Wolfe, the former Director of Security for the Senate Intelligence Committee. He is accused of one count of false statements to the FBI. The indictment alleges that he lied about his conversation with four journalists, Ali Watkins and three others.

The NYT has revealed that Watkins, who had a three-plus year relationship with Wolfe, had years of her communications subpoenaed. They obtained years of her subscriber information, and a more narrow period of additional information from her phone. As a reminder, the subscriber information that can be obtained with a d-order is tremendously invasive — in addition to name and financial and other contact information, the government obtains IP and device addresses that allow them to map out all the communications a person uses. This post lays out what the government demands from tech companies. Obtaining it will burn all but the most disciplined operational security and with it, a journalists’ sources.

The indictment also reveals the government obtained Signal and WhatsApp call records and content; it seems to have been Wolfe’s preferred means to communicate “securely.” I suspect they obtained the communications after June 2017, by targeting Wolfe’s phone. It’s possible he voluntarily provided his phone after confronted with his lies, but I suspect they obtained the Signal content via other means, basically compromising his device as an end point. I’ll return to this, but it appears DOJ has made a decision in recent days to expose the ease with which they can obtain Signal and other secure chat apps, at least in national security investigations, perhaps to make people less comfortable using it.

What I’d like to focus on, however, is the role of Carter Page in the indictment.

The government lays out clear proof Wolfe lied about conversations with three reporters. With Watkins and another, they point to stories about Carter Page to do so. The Watkins story is this one, confirming he is the person identified in the Evgeny Buryakov indictment. Another must be one of two stories revealing Page was subpoenaed for testimony by the Senate Intelligence Committee — either this one or this one.

I’m most interested, however, in this reference to a story the FBI raised with Wolfe in its interview, a story for which (unlike the others) the indictment never confirms whether Wolfe is the source.

During the interview, FBI agents showed WOLFE a copy of a news article authored by three reporters, including REPORTER #1, about an individual (referred to herein as “MALE-l), that contained classified information that had been provided to the SSCI by the Executive Branch for official purposes

The story suggests they don’t have content for the communications between Wolfe and Reporter #1, and the call records they’re interested in ended last June (meaning the story must precede it).

For example, between in or around December 2015 and in or around June 2017, WOLFE and REPORTER #1 communicated at least five times using his SSCI email account.

For that reason, I suspect this is the story they asked about — whether Wolfe is a source for the original credible story on Carter Page’s FISA order. The focus on Page generally in the indictment suggests this investigation started as an investigation into who leaked the fact that Page had been targeted under FISA, and continued to look at the stories that revealed classified details about the investigative focus on him (stories which he rightly complained to SSCI about).

I know the focus will be on the impact on Watkins and any other journalists DOJ has subpoenaed, if they have with the others; that impact is very real and we’ll hear more about how DOJ has shifted its treatment of journalists in upcoming days.

But I’d like to consider what it means that this investigation largely stems from leaks about the investigation into Page.

Page is not at all a sympathetic person. He’s nuts, and may well be or have been a willing recruit of Russia. But there are two reasons why the leaks into the investigation into him should be of concern, along with the concern about journalism.

First, whatever the truth about Page, one reason the government treats counterintelligence wiretaps differently than criminal ones is because there are times they need to obtain content from people they don’t have probable cause are criminals. Legitimately obtained wiretaps should never be revealed except in legal proceedings anyway, but that’s all the more true where the government may be using the wiretap to learn whether someone has been recruited. Unlike Paul Manafort, Mike Flynn, and George Papadopoulos, Carter Page has not been charged, yet the leaks about the investigation into him (including of the damned Steele dossier) have branded him as a Russian spy. I’ve reported on too many cases where FISA orders were used against people who weren’t spies (particularly Chinese Americans), and it needs to be said that investigative targets are kept secret, in part, because they’ve not been charged yet.

Then there’s the flip side to the issue. All the leaks about Carter Page may well have poisoned the investigation into him in several ways. Certainly, Page and the Russians were alerted to the scrutiny he was under. If he is or was a Russian spy, the government may never make its case because the stories on Page made it a lot easier for the targets of the investigation to counter it (I actually think several of the less credible leaks about this investigation were designed to do just that).

Indeed, all the leaked stories about him may have made it politically impossible for FBI to continue the investigation. We know the FISA orders against him ceased after all the leaks about his targeting, for example. So if Page is a spy, all the publicity about this may help him get away with it.

The government has wrapped up a tidy indictment where, while they know Wolfe is a source for at least some of the suspect stories about Page, any trial would instead focus on the clear evidence Wolfe lied about things like a multi-year relationship with someone working SSCI and not classified information. Probably, the hope is he’ll plea and identify all the stories for which he has been a source. To get there, the government has used awesome powers against at least one journalist (and in Watkins’ case, it’s not at all clear they needed to do that).

That said, while I don’t defend Page as a person at all, the giddy leaks about him do come with a cost in both due process and investigative terms and it’s worth remembering that as we talk about this case.

48 replies
  1. harpie says:

    Thank you Marcy, for stating it so clearly:

    That said, while I don’t defend Page as a person at all, the giddy leaks about him do come with a cost in both due process and investigative terms and it’s worth remembering that as we talk about this case.

    People with power have to behave responsibly.

    • Trip says:

      Marcy, I still want to know how Carter Page knew Paul Ryan was going to make a big deal out of his FISA warrant, back in Oct 2017. Something stinks in Denmark. How is that not a leak?

  2. Trip says:


    Anthony Bourdain died. RIP

    How he was relevant to “diplomacy”, and some of today’s puppet masters, on Henry Kissinger:

    “Once you’ve been to Cambodia, you’ll never stop wanting to beat Henry Kissinger to death with your bare hands. You will never again be able to open a newspaper and read about that treacherous, prevaricating, murderous scumbag sitting down for a nice chat with Charlie Rose or attending some black-tie affair for a new glossy magazine without choking. Witness what Henry did in Cambodia – the fruits of his genius for statesmanship – and you will never understand why he’s not sitting in the dock at The Hague next to Milošević. While Henry continues to nibble nori rolls and remaki at A-list parties, Cambodia, the neutral nation he secretly and illegally bombed, invaded, undermined, and then threw to the dogs, is still trying to raise itself up on its one remaining leg.”
    ― Anthony Bourdain, A Cook’s Tour: Global Adventures in Extreme Cuisines

    Suicide hotline:
    1-800-273-TALK (8255)

    • bmaz says:

      Bourdain was a fantastic diplomat, even if an unofficial one. Sadly, he was needed right now more than ever to travel and dispel the “ugly Americans” view. What a loss.

      • Willis Warren says:

        absolutely.  No matter how you feel about illegal mexicans, Tacos are awesome and food is better at breaking down barriers than any other human interaction.

        We need a stronger public sector that can help people when they need it.

    • harpie says:

      I would just like to add

      this thread of thoughts

      —poetry, really—

      from Bunmi Laditan@HonestToddler

      Fuck these shadows and the lies they tell, whispering to gentle hearts in their own voice, skewing reality, weighing down spirits until their body becomes the burning building their soul must jump from / [..] These shadows and their lies will not win in the end. They’ll take some and we’ll mourn them, but they will not win.

    • errant aesthete says:

      Anthony Bourdain died. RIP
      I mourn today because our world is a lesser place without him in it.

  3. Bob Conyers says:

    It’s worth noting that the press has weapons to defend itself in a war on leaks – in theory, at least, although they’re scared to use them.

    It would be trivially easy for, say, any NY Times editor to come up with a list of Trump officials who have leaked classified information in bad faith not deserving of confidentiality. The Times could then publish it, or even worse for Trump, send it to the FBI who could catch them in a prosecutable lie.

    Obviously this would be a huge break with tradition. There would be huge gnashing of teeth about how even malicious, deceitful sources deserve protection beyond what standard journalistic ethics demand. But I think it’s clear that the media is moving beyond the point where it is just being complicit in a dumb and hurtful game, and is going to facing an existential threat.

    I don’t expect them to actually do anything. But if the NY Times thinks they are immune to a Peter Thiel-style shutdown by crooked efforts, they’re kidding themselves.

  4. dividendmaster says:

    This is one of the most fairest and thoughtful posts regarding the power of the deep state and federal government I have ever come across I fear bmaz will delete it since it does not fit his narrative

    • bmaz says:

      First off, you do not know jack shit about me to say that. And, secondly, the casual bandying about of the term “deep state” is asinine without the capacity and knowledge to know how a government, its bureaucracy and actual things and actions that need to be done to protect the same, are done. Marcy’s post fully recognizes that. Your bullshit comment evidences none of that. Do better.

      • Trip says:

        @bmaz, I’m new and don’t have any kind of history to warrant any say, but that comment about you is nothing other than ballbusting, just to be a jerk. If anything deserves to be disappeared, it’s something that offers nothing other than to provoke and start an argument for no reason. Just my (maybe) humble opinion. (Jill or whatever sock is the name for the day).

        • bmaz says:

          Eh, we are good here, and very used to dealing with the bullshit. But, sincerely, thank you.

    • bmaz says:

      By the way, to be clear, this sock puppet twit is one and the same with our recent troll “Jill”.

      Dear Jill/Dividendmaster (a hilarious moniker), sock puppetry is not allowed here. Care to hit strike three?

  5. orionATL says:

    it is important that conterintelligence sources and info be kept secret until legitimately available to the defense or oversight. still this caper can’t hold a candle to the cia’s theft of torture documents from senate select ci’s secure room. in that matter, there was no fbi for the thief to be forced to lie to – too bad.

    it hurts trust between doj and the congress in a major when a congressional staffer behaves like james wolfe did – all for stoking intimacy and a piece of ass.  it’s an old, old, human story, often tragic for the actors. in this case we don’t yet know the actual damage to an investigation.

    far less understandable, why do people who have a lot to lose if their communications are intercepted keep trusting whatsapp and signal, etc., wolfe, watkins, manafort? i’d guess because they, like most of us, have not a clue as to the incredible, extensive ramifications for loss of privacy involved in all digital communications, encoded or not encoded. 

    one little detail missing – the party affiliation of the staffer is nowhere identified. 


    • emptywheel says:

      By all descriptions he was not views as one or the other. Especially among the longer serving SSCI staffers that’s often the case, because they come in through agency work, not political patronage.

      • orionATL says:

        that makes sense in this day of otherwise reflexively identifying important people in a media story by party, e. g., judge rudolf jones appointed by pres. h. w. bush in 19–.


      • bmaz says:

        Also true of most career DOJ prosecutors and FBI line agents. Not that they are not intolerable and malignant actors sometimes, they very much are; but I have only in the rarest of circumstances seen it as particularly political based in animus.

        This is what is so maddening about the current Trump WH and Congressional Republicans attack.

    • orionATL says:

      focus on tragic romance aside, one serious organizational consequence of behavior like wolfe’s is that it provides one side an excuse cum/anecdote to claim it cannot trust the other (not that there aren’t counter-stories). in this case dodging badly needed (competent) congressional oversight might be involved.

    • SteveB says:

      CNN report notes he began job @ senate 1987, and previously served in armed forces. The indictment lays out in painful detail his personal relationship with Reporter#2 including a passage from December 2017 at or close to the end of the personal relationship which lays bare a motivation to nurture her career albeit couched in terms crediting her for her own success.

      Obviously he could have acted with many mixed motivations, but the indictment seems intended to be read as exposing a middle aged man’s reckless folly.

      • orionATL says:

        painful details, but consistent with the what i would guess happened – tender affection for a love lost.


  6. pseudonymous in nc says:

    Page may be the biggest McGuffin (or not) of this whole thing, but his weirdness was like catnip to journalists in 2016-17, even as G-Pap managed to stay mostly under the radar until his plea was unsealed.

    • Trip says:

      He made a spectacle out of himself with his space cadet interviews. I don’t know whether or not it was an act.

      • bmaz says:

        Have you read any of his manifestos? I don’t think it is an act, that dude is legitimately crazy.

        • Trip says:

          No, I haven’t. I read some small excerpt of a dissertation and it almost seemed like he had kept some of his marbles in a jar, and that they hadn’t all gone missing.

        • earlofhuntingdon says:

          Could be why the University of London has his dissertation on read only with special permission from author status, and why he failed the first two of his three PhD oral exams.  The published comments were blistering – doesn’t know the core facts and issues about his subject, that sort of thing.  Lord knows how he passed on his third.

  7. Travis Hull says:

    One line of analysis missing and is a possibility, however remote, concerns Carter Page being willing to one degree or another to the FISA warrant on him,  It is possible Cater Page was working with the fbi/cia when he entered the Trump campaign in the Spring of 2016 and also in October of 2016 when the FISA warrant on him was granted.  This could occur if Page was working with the fbi/cia when he entered the campaign while at the same time doing enough with the russians to create a colorable argument he was a russian agent.   If Page were just a plain vanilla informant the fbi could only get the communications page had with others on a forward basis.  Subjecting Page to a FISA warrant expands the surveillance landscape exponentially as to people and time  A Page fisa warrant gets the fbi all electronic communication back and forward in time of all individuals within 2 hops of convos with page.  Put another way the Page FISA warrant allowed the fbi to access all convos past present and future of  everyone that talked to page and everyone that talked to them.

    • bmaz says:

      Uh, no, there is about zero chance of that if you understand the FISA warrant process.

      That is a “possibility” on only the most feverish of Fox News nightime insanity.

    • emptywheel says:

      Piling on what bmaz says. No. That’s not how FISA works. If Page were an informant they’d have used voluntary production.

      And then adding that FISC probably imposed temporal limits to the order, because of the political sensitivity.

    • SteveB says:

      Carter Page triple agent :  a latter day Eddie Chapman.

      Good luck with that screenplay

  8. readerOfTeaLeaves says:

    Trying to respond to Rugger9 @2:26

    Josh Marshall, an historian by training who now publishes TalkingPointsMemo, just laid it all out today: https://talkingpointsmemo.com/edblog/weve-got-a-problem-a-big-problem

    Whether or not Trump is a Russian agent, his actions have been in line with what we assume they’d have wanted. And it’s hard to believe there is mere circumstance in the timing of his Korean ‘diplomacy’. (Did Russia help him with that, as well…?)

    How an SSCI employee is top news, or what this means, or how invasive the means of detection, is still unclear. It gives Trump one more bloviating talking point about the ‘deep state’ and further delegitimizes the political processes we all hoped that we could count on.

    A little check-in at Asia Times (Pepe Escobar always amazing) makes quite clear that we are being handed our ass on a platter, and not a silver one. That fact that McConnell and Paul Ryan are so deeply complicit makes my blood boil. But it looks like ‘the crazy’ in DC is about to maneuver a new plot twist, and will surely mention ‘spies’ and ‘leakers’ to fluff it.

    • bmaz says:

      Josh is a smart guy. And he has done well for himself. But his site, TPM, is as bad as The Hill. It is almost unaccessible do to the overlay ads, pop up ads and blaring video ads. And then there is the common content he tries to masquerade as “Premium” content. Naw, it isn’t worth any money. I find it hard to go to Josh or TPM for anything at this point. I know a blog that doesn’t make the reader go through that horse manure, and never has.

      • earlofhuntingdon says:

        Have to agree.  I like Josh’s editorials, but the site is too marketing and fee focused.  One article links to another, one editorial links to another article.  Some decent work, but not all as original or as timely as marketed.  Shut off the cookies and it’s nearly impossible to navigate.  All for a small fee.

        More worthwhile to donate to Marcy.

        • Oldoilfieldhand says:

          Money donated to Marcy is money well spent. As my brilliant wife says” Let’s wait and see what Marcy has to say about it. After all, she’s been right all along.”

  9. Ferris Mueller says:

    Sounds like they are going after Daniel Jones as well as James Wolfe.  Ali’s Pulitzer nomination for her work on CIA torture involved both men.

    The government has wrapped up a tidy indictment where, while they know Wolfe is a source for at least some of the suspect stories about Page, any trial would instead focus on the clear evidence Wolfe lied about things like a multi-year relationship with someone working SSCI and not classified information. Probably, the hope is he’ll plea and identify all the stories for which he has been a source. To get there, the government has used awesome powers against at least one journalist (and in Watkins’ case, it’s not at all clear they needed to do that).

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