A former employee of the Senate intelligence committee has been arrested on charges of lying to the FBI about contacts he had with multiple reporters, federal prosecutors said Thursday.
James A. Wolfe, the longtime director of security for the committee — one of multiple congressional panels investigating potential ties between Russia and the Trump campaign — was indicted on three false statement counts after prosecutors say he misled agents about his relationships with reporters.
Though Wolfe is not charged with disclosing classified information, prosecutors say he was in regular contact with multiple journalists who covered the committee, including meeting them at restaurants, in bars, private residences and in a Senate office building. He also maintained a yearslong personal relationship with one reporter, which prosecutors say he lied about until being confronted with a photograph of him and the journalist.
The indictment was announced soon after The New York Times revealed that the Justice Department had secretly seized the phone records and emails of one of its journalists, Ali Watkins, as part of the same leak investigation involving Wolfe. The newspaper said Watkins was approached by the FBI about a three-year relationship she had had with Wolfe when she worked at other publications. The newspaper also said that Watkins said that Wolfe was not a source of classified information for her during their relationship.
In a statement Thursday night, Watkins’ attorney, Mark MacDougall, said: “It’s always disconcerting when a journalist’s telephone records are obtained by the Justice Department — through a grand jury subpoena or other legal process. Whether it was really necessary here will depend on the nature of the investigation and the scope of any charges.”
Wolfe, 58, of Ellicott City, Maryland, is due in court Friday. It wasn’t immediately clear whether he had a lawyer.
Each false statement count is punishable by up to five years in prison, though if convicted, Wolfe would almost certainly face only a fraction of that time.
The criminal case arises from a December 2017 FBI interview with Wolfe in which he denied having relationships with journalists or discussing committee business with them. At one point, he was presented with a news article containing classified information and was asked, in a written questionnaire, if he had had contact with any of the piece’s three authors. He checked “no” even though records obtained by the government show that he had been in communication with one of them.
In a separate instance, after one journalist published a story about a witness who’d been subpoenaed to appear before the committee, Wolfe wrote to say, “Good job!” and “I’m glad you got the scoop”
The prosecution comes amid a Trump administration crackdown on leaks of classified information. President Donald Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions have decried such disclosures, with Sessions saying in August that the number of leak of criminal leak probes had more than tripled in the early months of the Trump administration.
“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 John Demers, the Justice Department’s top national security official, said in a statement.
The Obama administration had its own repeated tangles with journalists, including secretly subpoenaing phone records of Associated Press reporters and editors during a 2012 leak investigation into a story about a bomb plot. The Justice Department amended its media guidelines in 2015 to make it more difficult for prosecutors to subpoena journalists for their sources, though officials in the last year have said they are reviewing those policies.
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr and the top Democrat on the committee, Sen. Mark Warner, said in a joint statement that they were troubled by the charges. Wolfe had worked for the committee for roughly 30 years, and his position as security director meant that he had access to classified information provided to the panel by the executive branch.
“While the charges do not appear to include anything related to the mishandling of classified information, the committee takes this matter extremely seriously,” the senators said. “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.”