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Former Senate Aide Charged With Lying To FBI About Contacts With Reporters

Updated at 4:41 p.m. ET

The former director of security for the Senate intelligence committee appeared in federal court on Friday to face charges he lied to the FBI about his contacts with reporters.

In an indictment unsealed late Thursday, prosecutors charged James Wolfe with three counts of making false statements to federal authorities. Wolfe, 57, worked for the committee for nearly three decades under both Republican and Democratic leadership.

Wolfe did not enter a plea. He is expected to appear at another hearing next week in Washington.

The case follows vows by President Trump and other top administration leaders to crack down on leaks to the press.

Wolfe has not been charged with mishandling or disclosing classified information. Instead, prosecutors say, Wolfe told FBI agents during an interview in December that he did not have contacts with reporters.

But the government says that Wolfe was in frequent communication with several journalists by phone, through encrypted messaging apps and in meetings at bars and restaurants.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions has vowed to quash the unauthorized disclosure of classified information. Last year, Sessions said the number of active leak investigations had tripled in 2017 and promised strong steps to stop "the culture of leaking."

The reporters with whom Wolfe communicated with are not named in the indictment, but The New York Times identified one of them as its reporter Ali Watkins, who worked at BuzzFeed News and Politico prior to joining the Times in December.

Prosecutors charge that in his interview, Wolfe first denied knowing Watkins. But when presented with a photograph of the two of them together, Wolfe acknowledged that he and Watkins had had a years-long romantic relationship.

The leaders of the Senate intelligence committee — Republican Chairman Richard Burr of North Carolina and his Democratic counterpart, Mark Warner of Virginia — said in a joint statement they learned of the investigation last year.

The committee leaders said they had fully cooperated with the investigation, including by making committee records available to the Justice Department. Burr and Warner added that the Wolfe case will "in no way" interfere with the committee's ongoing probe into Russia's interference in the 2016 U.S. election.

The committee placed Wolfe on leave and revoked his access to the committee spaces and material the day of his FBI interview, according to a committee source who asked not to be identified in order to discuss its internal operations.

In that FBI interview, Wolfe told agents that he had not had an official, professional or personal relationship with journalists.

Despite his denial, the indictment alleges, Wolfe "had, in truth, engaged in extensive contact with multiple reporters," adding that he was "conveying to at least two reporters information about" a person referred to in the documents as "MALE-1."

Court papers say that Wolfe, in his role as security director, received a classified document on March 17, 2017, related to MALE-1. It says Wolfe and an unnamed reporter — identified as Watkins — exchanged 82 text message and had a 28-minute phone call that evening.

On April 3, 2017, Watkins — who worked for BuzzFeed at the time — published an article about MALE-1, who has been identified as former Trump campaign foreign policy adviser Carter Page. Watkins' story reported that Russian agents had tried to recruit Page in 2013.

The Times said the Justice Department had secretly seized Watkins' phone and email records — an unusual but not unheard-of move in a leak investigation. Still, the newspaper criticized it, saying a reporter's communications with sources should be protected.

"This decision by the Justice Department will endanger the ability of reporters to promise confidentiality to their sources and, ultimately, undermine the ability of a free press to shine a much needed light on government actions," said Times spokeswoman Eileen Murphy. "That should be a grave concern to anyone who cares about an informed citizenry."

BuzzFeed editor Ben Smith said on Twitter that his online publication was "deeply troubled by what looks like a case of law enforcement interfering with a reporter's constitutional right to gather information about her own government."

Another of Watkins' former employers also faulted the Justice Department's conduct.

"Any time that a journalist's ability to do their job is threatened in a manner such as this, it's a major concern," said Politico spokesman Brad Dayspring.

The prosecution of Wolfe follows intense pressure from Trump for the Justice Department to crack down on leaks. Late last year, Sessions said the department had 27 open leak investigations — dwarfing what had also been a high number of leak probes pursued by the Obama administration.

Prosecutors said the case underscored the importance of protecting secrets and reinforced that it's unacceptable to try to mislead the FBI.

"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 in a statement. "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."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.
Ryan Lucas covers the Justice Department for NPR.