Not many people can put the media world on edge with a four letter word.
Such is the power, for now, of Benjamin Wittes.
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Benjamin Wittes (@benjaminwittes) May 16, 2017
Wittes, editor of the suddenly essential Lawfare blog, sent that tweet just before the New York Times published a bombshell report saying that James Comey, who was fired from his role as FBI director by President Donald Trump, had written memos about Trump’s requests that the bureau end its investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn.
Since then, he’s sent three similar tweets, each presaging a major story involving the Trump administration’s ongoing troubles. Along the way, Wittes has emerged as a semi-public figure for his friendship with Comey and the insight he has provided about the ongoing craziness of presidential politicsmost recently granting public interviews about about the situation to CNN and the Times. It’s safe to say you should follow him on Twitter.
It’s all a bit much for a guy who up until recently enjoyed, as he put it, the relative anonymity of a byline read by a select group of wonks.
“Basically my feeling is, I can be public and be transparent about what I’m doing, so why not?” Wittes said, speaking over Skype from his office at the Brookings Institute in Washington, D.C. Lawfare is an offshoot of the Brookings Institute, a well-respected think tank with a reputation for being politically balanced.
The spotlight on Wittes and Lawfare is a new and relatively sudden development. A year and a half ago, Wittes, by his own admission, was the kind of person mostly known among national security lawyers in D.C. Same thing for Lawfare, the blog he cofounded back in 2010 to explore wonky legal issues such as U.S. drone strikes and the treatment of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay.
Now, Lawfare stands as a must-read destination for anyone trying to understand the news. Its deep roster of contributors drive the discussion around the near-daily revelations of the Trump administration’s legal troubles. Read the news from the Times or Washington Post; read what it means and what might come next on Lawfare.
The word blog feels weird to use to describe Lawfare. The masthead is a brain trust on national security law that is unrivaled by any cable network or law school. Posts can run into thousands of words, delve into legal statutes, and often feature multiple bylines as if produced for a law journal.
“We’ve been flabbergasted at its explosion.”
The blog’s growing influence can be seen in its traffic. In 2014, Lawfare did about 1.5 million visitors. It almost hit that number in just the first month of 2017. Lawfare has already set a new monthly record in May with 1.7 million visitors.
“We’ve been flabbergasted at its explosion into the kind of daily reading of people completely outside the field,” Wittes said.
This is not exactly what Wittes had in mind back roughly seven years ago when he started the blog with University of Texas law professor Robert Chesney and Harvard law professor Jack Goldsmith.
The blog operates as a nonprofit organization that shares some resources with Brookings, helping it to operate away from the brutal economics of the internet. It runs very few ads, with much of its revenue primarily coming from donations and a bit from merchandising.
“It was a lark, honestly,” Wittes said. “It was three guys who had all written together in very wonky areas like Guantanamo [Bay] and detention policy.”
Lawfare quickly found a core readership among the kind of people who get into the weeds on thorny legal issues having to do with the government. They weren’t always terribly well liked, either. Wittes recalled being the subject of plenty of criticism over pieces on Lawfare that defended some acts by the U.S. government that people on the left labeled war crimes.
That’s a legacy that Wittes doesn’t dodge, and it’s a legacy that also explains why Lawfare is taken very seriously by very serious people. The website itself takes no editorial positions, allowing for influential legal thinkers on the left and right to contribute.
“In some ways I think the criticism they received three, four, five, years ago set them up to so be so influential now,” said Daniel Drezner, a professor of international relations at The Fletcher School at Tufts University and a Lawfare reader. “It’s that fact that has made them more credible now as coming out as so critical of the president because they are thought as being generally deferential when it comes to executive authority.”
Critical of the president might be putting it gently. Lawfare‘s contributorsand Wittes in particularhave not held back when writing about President Trump.
“What we’re experiencing now is some combination of the defense of democracy and democratic institutions,” Wittes said.
“It’s dangerous to have an executive branch that’s not committed to the rule of law and democratic institutions and the sort of normal functioning of government. And it’s also really dangerous to have an executive branch that doesn’t know how to do anything competently,” he added.
Those aren’t empty words. Wittes and the other writers at Lawfare know far better than most anyone else what’s at stake. And they’re not the kind of people that cry wolf.
Lawfare‘s key elements deep knowledge, independence, gravitas are unmatched. Things happen some times that make particular publications perfect for their time and space think FiveThirtyEight around the 2008 election. That’s Lawfare right now.
Of course, there willhopefullycome a day when that’s not the case. We all look forward to a time when Trump isn’t dominating the headlines. Wittes is there with us. The recent success has been satisfying, he said, vindication that it was smart to pursue Lawfare. The site is working on building into its recent growth with new hires.
He’s not, however, looking to go the route of FiveThirtyEight. He’ll be happy to go back to the relative obscurity.
It would mean our ongoing crisis had been somehow resolved, Wittes noted. He wants to get back to the issues that don’t appeal to the general public but matter deeply to the national security lawyers who first read Lawfare. And be rid of Trump.
“I think the country is a better place if that’s our audience, and I will happily give up the visibility, the traffic, the media attention. I would love to have only a few thousand people reading Lawfare and frankly being able to spend our time in service to that readership, thinking through hard problems that they might not have time to think about.”
That’s not going to happen anytime soon, unless a particularly big bomb drops.
If it does, there’s a good chance Wittes will see it coming.
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Benjamin Wittes (@benjaminwittes) May 19, 2017
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