June 8 (UPI) — A former Senate intelligence committee aide was arrested Thursday on charges of lying to FBI agents 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 2013 and 2017. The reporter, Ali Watkins of The New York Times, had several years of her phone and email records 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’ personal attorney, Mark J. MacDougall. “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.
New York Times spokeswoman Eileen Murphy said seizing a journalist’s communications records is an alarming and potentially unconstitutional step 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 indictment, Wolfe, a former security director for the Senate intelligence committee who retired earlier this year, “engaged in extensive contact with multiple reporters” and often used anonymous messaging services like 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 intelligence committee, the indictment said.
The Justice Department said Wolfe texted Watkins in December, “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 said to be Watkins’ story on April 3, 2017, for Buzzfeed News that revealed the FBI was investigating former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page 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 said Wolfe provided classified information about the Page investigation to Watkins and leaked information to three other reporters on different topics related to the intelligence committee.
All reporters are unnamed in the indictment, but the Times identified Watkins.
Wolfe is charged with three counts of making a false statement to a government agency.