June 8 (UPI) — A former Senate Intelligence Committee aide was arrested Thursday on charges of lying to FBI during an investigation into whether he leaked classified information to reporters.
The FBI said James A. Wolfe, 57, made misleading statements to agents when they asked him about his previous contacts with several reporters, including one he had a personal relationship with between approximately December 2013 and December 2017.
That reporter, Ali Watkins of The New York Times, also had several years of her phone and email records secretly seized by the FBI.
“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,” said Watkins’s personal lawyer, Mark J. MacDougall, according to The New York Times. “Whether it was really necessary here will depend on the nature of the investigation and the scope of any charges.”
Watkins has not been charged with a crime.
The New York Times spokeswoman, Eileen Murphy, said seizing a journalist’s communications records is an alarming and potentially unconstitutional step to take in an investigation.
“Freedom of the press is a cornerstone of democracy, and communications between journalists and their sources demand protection,” Murphy said.
According to the FBI’s indictment on Wolfe, the former security director for the Senate Intelligence Committee who retired earlier this year, “engaged in extensive contact with multiple reporters” and often used anonymizing messaging services, such as Signal and WhatsApp.
Watkins, who met Wolfe in 2013 when she was a college intern and freelance reporter in Washington, D.C., wrote dozens of articles about the SSCI, according to the indictment.
According to the indictment, Wolfe texted Watkins the following message in December 2017: “I watched your career take off even before you had a career in journalism…I always tried to give you as much information as I could and to do the right thing with it so you can get that scoop before anyone else.”
One of those scoops was allegedly Watkins’ story on April 3, 2017 for Buzzfeed News that revealed the FBI was investigating Carter Page, the former campaign adviser for President Donald Trump, because a Russian spy attempted to recruit him in 2013.
“The revelation of Page’s connection to Russian intelligence — which occurred more than three years before his association with Trump — is the most clearly documented contact to date between Russian intelligence and someone in Trump’s orbit,” Watkins wrote.
The FBI says Wolfe provided the classified information about the Page investigation to Watkins and leaked information to three other reporters on different topics related to the SSCI.
All of the reporters are unnamed in the indictment but The New York Times published Watkins’ identity as one of the reporters mentioned.
Wolfe is charged with three counts of making a false statement to a government agency when he was questioned about his contact with reporters.