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Ex-Senate staffer faces charges in leak investigation

June 8, 2018 10:58 am Updated: June 8, 2018 10:58 am

WASHINGTON - A former staff member of the Senate Intelligence Committee has been indicted and arrested on charges of making false statements to the FBI during an investigation into the leak of classified information, the Justice Department announced Thursday. As part of the investigation, law enforcement officials seized years' worth of phone and email records of a New York Times reporter, Ali Watkins, who had previously been in a romantic relationship with the staffer, the newspaper reported Thursday evening.

The Senate staffer, James A. Wolfe, was indicted on three counts of making false statements while he served as the committee's director of security, a position in which he was entrusted with secret and top-secret information provided to the committee as part of its oversight of the intelligence community, the Justice Department said in a statement. Wolfe served in the job for nearly 30 years, from 1987 until last December.

The government alleges that Wolfe lied to FBI agents in December 2017 about "repeated contacts" with three reporters, including through the use of encrypted messaging applications. He is further accused of lying about providing two reporters with "non-public information related to matters occurring before the [committee]," the statement read.

It's clear from the context of the indictment that Watkins was the author of one story the FBI was investigating to determine who served as her source or sources. The identities of three other reporters referred to anonymously in the indictment, and with whom Wolfe is alleged to have had contact, were not clear.

It's rare for the government to obtain the communications of reporters as part of a leak investigation, and the seizure of Watkins's records, the first known case under the Trump administration, signals the aggressiveness with which officials are pursuing leaks to the press. 

Under Justice Department regulations, prosecutors are required to exhaust "all reasonable steps" to obtain information about a leaker from other non-journalistic sources before seeking a reporter's private communications, which could reveal her confidential sources. It was not clear why investigators chose to take the extraordinary step of obtaining Watkins's phone and email records and what other avenues they had pursued.

A prosecutor informed Watkins in a Feb. 13 letter that the Justice Department had obtained records and subscriber information from communications companies, including Google and Verizon, pertaining to two email accounts and a phone number belonging to her, according to the Times, which learned of the letter on Thursday. The Justice Department's investigative rules generally require giving a reporter the chance to contest the demand for records and to narrow the scope of the government's inquiry. But, according to the Times, Watkins was not informed at the time investigators obtained her records.

The government did not obtain the content of any of Watkins's messages, the paper said. Watkins worked for BuzzFeed News and Politico before joining the Times.

The Times did not respond to requests for comment Thursday evening. Wolfe also did not respond to requests for comments.

In a joint statement, the leaders of the intelligence committee said they were "troubled to hear of the charges filed against a former member of the committee staff."

Sens. Richard Burr, R.-N.C., and Mark Warner, D-Va., the chair and vice chair, said they'd learned of the investigation late last year and had "fully cooperated" with the authorities since then.

"While the charges do not appear to include anything related to the mishandling of classified information, the committee takes this matter extremely seriously," they stated, adding that the leak probe "will in no way interfere" with the committee's continuing investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election and possible links between Russia and the Trump campaign.

Brad Dayspring, a Politico spokesman, said in a statement: "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. Ms. Watkins did not disclose the personal nature of her relationship early on in her tenure, and she was managed accordingly thereafter."

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

Ben Smith, the editor in chief of BuzzFeed News, said in a statement: "We're 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."

"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," Watkins's personal lawyer, Mark MacDougall, said in a statement. "Whether it was really necessary here will depend on the nature of the investigation and the scope of any charges."

The indictment alleges that on March 17, 2017, U.S. intelligence agencies provided a classified document to the Senate Intelligence Committee. As director of security, Wolfe received the document. On that day, the indictment states, Wolfe exchanged 82 text messages with Watkins and that evening had a 28-minute phone call with her.

On April 3, Watkins, then a reporter for BuzzFeed News, authored a story that revealed that former Trump campaign foreign policy adviser Carter Page had been in contact with at least one Russian spy working undercover in New York in 2013. That day, before and after the article appeared online, Wolfe and Watkins exchanged "approximately 124 electronic communications," the indictment states. And about 20 minutes after the article posted, the two had a cellphone call that lasted seven minutes.

On Dec. 15, 2017, FBI agents asked Wolfe about Watkins' article and he "denied knowing about the reporter's sources" for the piece, the indictment stated. The agents then showed Wolfe pictures showing him together with Watkins. Wolfe then admitted lying to the FBI and that he had a personal relationship with Watkins since 2014, but he said that he had "never disclosed" classified information to her, or any news leads or non-public information about committee matters, the indictment states.

The indictment alleges Wolfe also had contact with three other reporters, referred to only as Reporter #1, Reporter #3 and Reporter #4. According to the indictment, Wolfe lied about having had contact with the reporters between December 2015 and December 2017.

Reporter #1 co-authored an article, prosecutors said, that contained classified information about Page that had been provided to the committee by the government. On Oct. 17, Reporter #3 asked Wolfe, using the encrypted messaging app Signal, to provide Page's contact information, and Wolfe obliged, according to the indictment. Later that day, that reporter published a story disclosing that Page had been subpoenaed to testify before the committee. After the story published, Wolfe congratulated the reporter, using Signal, stating "Good job!" and "I'm glad you got the scoop," the indictment said.

According to prosecutors, in October 2017, Wolfe contacted Reporter #4 using Signal, offering to act as an anonymous source. Wolfe cautioned the reporter to "never use [his] name" to any colleagues, the indictment said.

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The Washington Post's Matt Zapotosky and Devlin Barrett contributed to this report.