A former longtime staffer for the Senate Intelligence Committee was arrested Thursday after being indicted on three felony counts of making false statements to the FBI in the course of an investigation into leaks of classified information.
James A. Wolfe, 58, who served as the panel’s security director for about 30 years, was accused of lying to FBI investigators about his contacts with four journalists and about whether he had provided confidential committee information to them.
The indictment does not name the journalists, but the New York Times said in a story published just before Wolfe’s arrest was officially confirmed Thursday that the Justice Department had informed one of its national security reporters, Ali Watkins, that records relating to her emails and phone calls had been seized by the government. No prior notice of the seizure was given, the newspaper said.
Wolfe, according to the indictment, was accused of lying when he denied leaking to Watkins in connection with an article she wrote for a previous employer, BuzzFeed News, in April 2017 identifying former Donald Trump campaign adviser Carter Page as the target of a Russian espionage operation in New York. Executive branch officials had provided confirmation of that fact to the Senate Intelligence panel about two weeks earlier, the indictment says.
During Wolfe’s FBI interview in December, Wolfe denied sharing non-public information with reporters and said he was not in regular electronic communication with any journalist, the indictment says. However, after FBI agents confronted him with photos of him and Watkins, he admitted lying and acknowledged a personal relationship with her, the charges say. Still, Wolfe denied divulging any confidential information, the indictment says.
The indictment stops short of accusing Wolfe of revealing classified information to reporters. Prosecutors may believe it’s simpler to pursue charges over the ex-Senate staffer’s alleged false statements than to try to prove whether information he may have disclosed was classified.
Late Thursday, Senate Intelligence Committee leaders described the developments as “disappointing.”
“We are troubled to hear of the charges filed against a former member of the Committee staff,” the panel’s chairman and vice chairman, Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina and Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, said in a joint statement. “While the charges do not appear to include anything related to the mishandling of classified information, the Committee takes this matter extremely seriously. We were made aware of the investigation late last year, and have fully cooperated with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Justice since then. Working through Senate Legal Counsel, and as noted in a Senate Resolution, the Committee has made certain official records available to the Justice Department.”
Many First Amendment advocates and news outlets reacted with alarm to the Justice Department’s seizure of records connected to Watkins, particularly the fact it occurred without advance notice.
“Freedom of the press is a cornerstone of democracy and we believe that communications between journalists and their sources demand protection,” Times spokeswoman Eileen Murphy said. “This decision by the Justice Department will endanger reporters ability to promise confidentiality to their sources and, ultimately, undermine the ability of a free press to shine a much needed light on government actions. That should be a grave concern to anyone who cares about an informed citizenry.”
Watkins was hired by POLITICO in May 2017 after the publication of the Carter Page story.
A POLITICO spokesman said Thursday that the Justice Department’s actions were unsettling. “Any time that a journalist’s ability to do their job is threatened in a manner such as this, it’s a major concern,” spokesman Brad Dayspring said.
In a statement, Dayspring said the company became aware of Watkins’ relationship with Wolfe after she came on board last year.
“Ms. Watkins’ primary beat during her short time at POLITICO was not the Senate Intelligence Committee, which we had two reporters covering, but national security and law enforcement, including topics relating to China, international spy games, and Cuba,” the spokesman added. “Ms. Watkins did not disclose the personal nature of her relationship early on in her tenure at POLITICO, but she was managed accordingly once that disclosure was made.”
Justice Department regulations require the approval of the attorney general for subpoenas aimed at journalists’ records. In addition, the policy says reporters should be told about such requests in advance, “unless the Attorney General determines that, for compelling reasons, such notice would pose a clear and substantial threat to the integrity of the investigation, risk grave harm to national security, or present an imminent risk of death or serious bodily harm.”
A Justice Department spokeswoman had no immediate response to a request for comment on whether the procedures were followed in this case.
The Times said in a story that Watkins was notified by a Justice Department National Security Division prosecutor on Feb. 13 that the Justice Department had years of records from companies such as Google and Verizon for two email accounts and a phone number of hers. Investigators did not obtain the content of the messages themselves, the paper said. The Times article said the paper was not aware of the notice to Watkins until Thursday.
The charges against Wolfe come as Trump has repeatedly lashed out against government leaks and as Justice Department officials have pledged to ramp up efforts to track down leakers of classified information.
Justice Department officials issued a series of stern statements Thursday saying that the charges against Wolfe should serve as a deterrent to others.
“Mr. Wolfe’s alleged conduct is a betrayal of the extraordinary public trust that had been placed in him,” said U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia Jessie Liu. “It is hoped that these charges will be a warning to those who might lie to law enforcement to the detriment of the United States.”
“The Attorney General has stated that investigations and prosecutions of unauthorized disclosure of controlled information are a priority of the Department of Justice. The allegations in this indictment are doubly troubling as the false statements concern the unauthorized disclosure of sensitive and confidential information,” Assistant Attorney General for National Security John Demers said. “Those entrusted with sensitive information must discharge their duties with honesty and integrity, and that includes telling the truth to law enforcement.”
Wolfe is the third person known to have been charged in connection with leaks to the media since Trump took office.
Last June, National Security Agency contractor Reality Winner was arrested on charges of leaking to the online publication the Intercept a top secret report on the techniques Russian government agents allegedly used to target computers of state election officials. She has pleaded not guilty and has been held without bail. Her trial is set for October.
In March, Minneapolis-based FBI agent Terry Albury was charged with a leak to the Intercept of the FBI’s procedures for handling informants. He was also accused of retaining classified information at his home. He pleaded guilty to both charges and is free awaiting sentencing.
Justice Department officials said Wolfe is expected to make an initial appearance Friday in federal court in Maryland. The criminal indictment was returned by a grand jury in Washington, records show.Wolfe faces a maximum penalty of five years in prison on each of the three false-statement counts. Defendants are typically sentenced in accordance with federal sentencing guidelines that usually call for more lenient sentences, particularly for first-time offenders.