Almost from day one, leaking was a hallmark of the Washington D.C. swamp during the Trump administration. Unelected bureaucrats hostile to President Trump and his agenda leaked highly classified information to the media including the transcript of a call between incoming National Security Advisor (NSA) Gen. Michael Flynn and Russian Amb. Sergey Kislyak and calls between President Trump and other heads of state including those of Australia and Mexico. Each occurrence represents a 20 year felony.
In June 2017, former Obama administration defense official Evelyn Farkas appeared on MSNBC to say she had seen classified evidence of the Trump campaign colluding with the Russian government during the 2016 campaign. When later questioned under oath in a classified hearing, she was forced to admit it was a flat out lie. Notably at the very end of the MSNBC interview, Farkas made reference to the systemic leaking of classified information by Deep State actors going on at the time with seemingly no fear of accountability or consequences for their actions.
That’s why you have the leaking. People are worried.Evelyn Farkas on MSNBC
Despite the near epidemic levels of politized leaking that occurred throughout the Trump administration, hardly anyone was ever caught and prosecuted except notably for one individual. In late 2018, A U.S. Treasury Dept. employee named Natalie Mayflower Sours Edwards was arrested and charged by the Justice Dept. office in the Southern District of New York. It set off cheers among Trump supporters that finally corrupt unelected bureaucrats were finally going to be held unaccountable for criminal leaks. But as seen with the Kevin Clinesmith case in the Spygate scandal, it appears to be the one-off exception. So what was different about this case and why was Natalie Edwards singled out?
Ever wonder how some journalists get their scoops and sources? I started thinking about this the other day. How politicians and journalists in New York, Washington D.C., and elsewhere are seemingly joined at the hip. The media are not holding these powerful politicians to account. They are actively coordinating with them in a groupthink narrative encapsulated into a false sense of reality inside the beltway together.
If a journalist pushes back a little against a groupthink, the politicians will stop talking to them and their sources dry up until their only alternative would be to actually be a journalist and dig hard for “the scoop”.
One circular intel tactic I have observed is a journalist will be given the name of a disgruntled federal employee as a tip and dataflow can then be established through them as a channel. Of course this is of great risk to the leaker since classified information is illegal, but as long as the data is a hit piece on a institutionally disfavored opponent, the leaker will be protected. Once in a while the government employee becomes too cavalier and loose ends need to be tied up with an indictment for leaking. If the information hurts the swamp, the leaker’s story is buried. But if it helps move along an institutional narrative, the leaker is lauded with hero status as a brave whistleblower; Alexander Vindman and Miles Taylor come to mind.
Recently a famous leak of Suspicious Activity Reports (SARS) from the Financial Crimes Division (FinCEN) of the United States Treasury Dept. made a splash with dozens of articles, podcasts, and seminars discussing these snapshots of a flagged bank transactions. The FinCEN files was a BuzzFeed podcast series heavily laced with innuendos, conspiracy theories, and distortions. BuzzFeed also wrote a dozen hit pieces on Trump associates based on these SARS reports starting from October 2017 to October 2018 adding fuel to the Russiagate and Mueller probe.
The former senior officials with the United States Treasury that leaked to BuzzFeed were an unidentified co-conspirator and Natalie Edwards. Although the BuzzFeed reporter is identified as “Reporter 1” in the criminal indictment against Edwards, Jason Leopold is the only reporter in every byline and has been identified as Reporter 1 by The Wall Street Journal.
Edwards began communicating with Jason Leopold in July 2017 and over time gave him flash drives with names in folders labeled such things as ‘Debacle-Operation-CF‘ and ‘Debacle/Emails/Asshat‘. Edwards was not known to be involved in any official FinCEN project or task bearing these files or codenames. She contends she became frustrated trying to work within the bounds of federal whistleblower guidelines and she felt all her concerns were being ignored.
In August 2016, Edwards emailed Richard Delmar, the Deputy Inspector General of the Department of Treasury, about her concerns with how FinCEN is mishandling issues of national security. Even after FinCEN sent emails in August 2016 telling employees not to speak to Congress, Natalie continued to email various congressmen with her concerns over the next few months due to frustration her complaints were not being dealt with internally.
Almost a year after her first internal complaint to Delmar feeling nothing was being done about her internal complaints or her complaints to Congress, she turned to the media and began communication with Jason Leopold in July 2017. A few months after communication, Leopold passed along a letter to Natalie from Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) thanking her for her whistleblowing efforts. Between October 2017 and October 2018, twelve articles were released by BuzzFeed based on the SARS reports she leaked to Leopold.
A year later Natalie is suspended from her Treasury job, indicted for leaking SARS reports, and forced to sell her house in order to defend herself from the charges. Edwards pled guilty and is presently awaiting sentencing on a charge that carries a maximum of five years in prison, although federal prosecutors have made a sentencing recommendation of zero to six months.
The articles between October 2017 and October 2018 had titles insinuating nefarious transactions between Russia and Trump associates. Headlines like ‘A Series of Suspicious Money Transfers Followed the Trump Tower Meeting‘ and ‘GOP Operative Made Suspicious Cash Withdrawal During Pursuit of Clinton Emails‘.
After Edwards’ arrest in October 2018, BuzzFeed continued to use the material from the SARS data for more articles in December 2018 in an attempt to connect Trump associates to all things Russia. On December 20, 2018, Leopold himself wrote an article about Edwards’ arrest, omitting any mention he himself was the journalist she communicated with. In the article, Leopold claimed she was motivated by her belief FinCEN staffers were withholding documents revealing suspicious financial transactions of Trump Associates, but Edwards herself insists Leopold is distorting her motives and those were not the concerns that led to her whistleblowing.
Edwards instead insists the opposite is true. She was a supporter of President Donald Trump and Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn (Ret.), and had grown concerned that in 2015 that the Treasury Dept. was illegally spying on Michael Flynn and others. She has been passionate in defense of herself on an anonymous twitter account stating she received no money, no power, and lost everything in an attempt to ring the alarm of corrupt government practices inside of the Treasury Dept.
It is hard to connect her motives with the Trump hit pieces that transpired from her discussions with Jason Leopold. Jason would encourage her often saying things such as, “I hope you get that job you want” and continue to pass on gratitude from Sen. Wyden about her continued whistleblowing efforts.
In Leopold’s December 2018 article talking about Edwards, he appears sympathetic to her arrest, giving her a chance to explain her actions. Jason emphasized she reported the wrongdoing to her supervisor initially and was retaliated against when she went to Office of the Inspector General (IG) with her complaint. Leopold quotes an anonymous FinCEN official saying,
Edwards took it on herself to try and protect everyone here as well as national security. Nobody listened to her or some of the other brave whistleblowers who came forward. They’re all now paying a high price.An anonymous FinCEN official as reported by BuzzFeed reporter Jason Leopold
In this same article, Leopold discusses how Treasury officials were communicating with Russia counterterrorism units on unsecure channels. A FinCEN intelligence official was quoted as saying,
[U]nfortunately Rosfin* does prefer throwaway Gmail accounts as their preferred method to communicate.An anonymous FinCEN official as reported by BuzzFeed reporter Jason Leopold
*(Rosfin is the shortened name for Rosfinmonitoring, the Russian Federal Financing Monitoring Service)
Edwards appears to have been frustrated at how FinCEN dealt with suspicious bank transactions as she originally worked at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) and was used to the way information was handled more efficiently such as terrorism activity . Her frustrations going to IG, then to Congress, then finally to the media may not have gotten out the message out she states she initially wanted to achieve. If all her leaked SARS resulted in hit piece after piece trying to connect Trump associates to Russia, why didn’t she voice her frustrations to Jason Leopold after his first article? It’s hard to reconcile what she claims is her initial motive for whistleblowing and the results it achieved in strengthening the paranoia of Russiagate.
In Edwards’ letter to Congress addressed to Senators Grassley, Cochran, Burr, and Portman as well as Congressmen Gowdy and Nunes, her main complaint appears to be improper use of the Executive Order governing the oversight of U.S. Intelligence (EO 12333), Gross mismanagement, obstructing the work of Congress and retaliatory action against a USG whistleblower. Interesting in her complaint she raises the security concern of Treasury officials knowingly using throw away Google accounts to communicate with Russia, something that BuzzFeed articles omit, saying it was only the Russians communicating with gmail. Her letter explains 21 years as a US government whistleblower and her frustration feeling her first amendment was violated based on Lloyd-LaFollette Act of 1923 and the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978.
As she now awaits her sentencing for sharing the SARs reports to Jason Leopold of BuzzFeed, I can’t help but wonder how she feels about the whole experience. Is she frustrated that her initial complaints were morphed into an anti-Trump parade of articles by BuzzFeed? The articles do not seem to align with what she claims were her main concerns about what the Treasury Dept. was doing. Did Jason Leopold just use her for his own agenda, then silencing her just like the DOJ is doing now with her criminal indictment? If Jason was sincere in wanting to express her desire the blow the whistle, why did he distort them into fabrications of Russians putting money into Trump associate bank accounts? If he wrote about Dr. Edwards true concerns were, would he lose his status as a preferred recipient of targeted Deep State leaks?
Regina Mouradian (@ReginaMourad)
Author of Dragon Games: Based on a True Story of Sergei Millian
Author of Dragon Games: Based on a True Story of Sergei Millian, The Hermitage Effect: How Bill Browder and her fiction book Buried Treasure. Lives in Massachusetts.