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Ex-Senate aide appears in federal court after indictment

James Comey, James Wolfe
The Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — A former employee of the Senate intelligence committee appeared before a federal court in Maryland Friday after being arrested for lying to the FBI about contacts with multiple reporters.

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 Thursday evening after prosecutors say he misled agents about his relationships with reporters. He made a brief appearance in federal court in Baltimore Friday, where U.S. Magistrate Judge J. Mark Coulson released him from custody and ordered him to appear at the federal courthouse in Washington next week.

Wolfe did not answer questions from reporters as he left the hearing.

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 is also accused of maintaining a yearslong personal relationship with one reporter, which prosecutors say he lied about until being confronted with a photograph of him and the journalist.

On Friday morning, President Donald Trump said the Justice Department had caught “a very important leaker” and said it could be a “terrific thing.” He said he was still getting details on the case.

“I’m a big, big believer in freedom of the press,” Trump told reporters before departing for a trip to Canada. “But I’m also a believer in classified information. Has to remain classified.”

Wolfe’s 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 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 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.”

It wasn’t immediately clear whether Wolfe, 57, of Ellicott City, Maryland, 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.

He also said that though he saw journalists every day as part of his job, he never spoke to them about anything related to the committee.

In a separate instance, the indictment said that Wolfe used the encrypted messaging app Signal to inform a female journalist he had served a person with a subpoena in the Russia investigation, the government said. After the journalist published a story about the subpoena, the indictment says that Wolfe texted back to say, “Good job!” and “I’m glad you got the scoop.”

Wolfe informed the journalist that the witness would appear privately before the committee that week, prompting the witness to complain to the committee that details of his appearance had been leaked, according to the indictment. Neither the reporter nor the person who was subpoenaed is named in the indictment.

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.”

The prosecution comes amid a Trump administration crackdown on leaks of classified information. Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions have decried such disclosures, with Sessions saying in August that the number of leaks of criminal leak probes had more than tripled in the early months of the Trump administration.

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 onerous for prosecutors to subpoena journalists for their sources, though officials in the past year have said they are reviewing those policies.

Lauren Easton, director of media relations for the AP, said Friday, “The Associated Press opposes any government overreach that jeopardizes the ability of journalists to freely and safely do their jobs and undermines the vital distinction between the government and the press.”

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Witte reported from Baltimore, Maryland. Associated Press writers Chad Day and Jill Colvin contributed to this report.

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