WASHINGTON — A veteran former Senate Intelligence Committee staffer pleaded not guilty Wednesday to charges of lying repeatedly to FBI agents investigating his contacts with journalists as part of a larger inquiry into the unauthorized disclosure of classified information.
The case against James A. Wolfe, 57, the Senate panel's longtime director of security, was unsealed Thursday. He is charged with three counts of making false statements to agents who seized emails and phone records belonging to a New York Times reporter as part of the investigation.
The staffer's attorneys said they would "vigorously defend Wolfe against this unfair and unjustified prosecution," adding that they would also seek a far-reaching gag order that would prohibit government officials, including President Trump, from making "prejudicial statements" about the case.
Asked about Wolfe's arrest last week, Trump referred to the staffer as "a very important leaker" and that his prosecution could prove to be a "terrific thing."
"There is absolutely no allegation in this case that Mr. Wolfe leaked classified information," defense attorney Ben Klubes said following Wolfe's brief arraignment. "This prosecution raises very substantial First Amendment and freedom of the press issues that will be addressed in court."
One of the four reporters who prosecutors alleged communicated with Wolfe was identified as New York Times correspondent Ali Watkins, the newspaper has said, adding that Wolfe and Watkins had a romantic relationship that began about four years ago.
The Times reported it is reviewing Watkins' work history. It said Watkins told the paper her relationship with Wolfe had ended last year. She joined the Times in December.
Wolfe stopped performing committee work in December and retired in May.
A federal prosecutor notified Watkins on Feb. 13 that Justice had obtained information on her Google email accounts and Verizon phone, the Times reported. The action departed from traditional practice by federal authorities who generally notify reporters in advance before seeking their communications. The seized records spanned years before and after Watkins joined the Times in 2017 to cover federal law enforcement.
It is the first known instance in which the Trump administration has seized records from a journalist during the course of a leak investigation.
In court papers, federal investigators have focused on Wolfe as the source of an April 3 article written by Watkins while she was a reporter at BuzzFeed News in which she identified former Donald Trump campaign adviser Carter Page as being in contact with a Russian intelligence officer in 2013.
According to Justice Department rules for getting information from, or records of, members of the news media, "the approach in every instance must be to strike the proper balance among several vital interests: Protecting national security, ensuring public safety, promoting effective law enforcement and the fair administration of justice, and safeguarding the essential role of the free press in fostering government accountability and an open society."
Privacy and free speech advocates have seized on the federal law enforcement action as a breach of practice in leak investigations involving journalists.
Watkins' attorney, Mark MacDougall, had described the seizure as "disconcerting."
“Whether it was really necessary here will depend on the nature of the investigation and the scope of any charges," MacDougall said in a statement.
In August, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a broad crackdown on unauthorized disclosures of classified information, warning both would-be leakers and the media while demanding that the "culture of leaking must stop."
Referring to an "explosion'' of leaks since President Trump took office, Sessions said the Justice Department has “more than tripled" the number of active leak investigations compared to the number pending at the end of the Obama administration.
Sessions' remarks threatened a break with the Obama Justice Department policy, which asserted that reporters would not be targeted.
No journalist protection
Former Attorney General Eric Holder, taking fire for aggressive investigative tactics taken against journalists, pledged in 2013 that he would "not prosecute any reporter'' for doing their jobs.
The Trump Justice Department, however, has offered no such blanket protections, as Sessions also announced the creation of a new counterintelligence unit within the FBI that would focus exclusively on leaks of classified material to the press and others.
In a joint statement, the chairman and vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee said last week that while they were "troubled" by the charges against the former staffer, they did not believe that the allegations against Wolfe involved the mishandling of classified information.
"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," Chairman Richard Burr, R-N.C., and Vice Chairman Mark Warner, D-Va., said.
"This news is disappointing...however, we trust the justice system to act appropriately and ensure due process as this case unfolds."
At Wednesday's hearing, federal Magistrate Deborah Robinson said Wolfe would be allowed to remain free on his own personal recognizance. He was required, however, to surrender his passport and not venture beyond Washington, D.C., Maryland or northern Virginia without prior approval from the court.
Klubes lauded Wolfe as a "dedicated public servant'' both as a Senate staffer and before that as a "decorated" U.S. Army intelligence analyst.
"He was entrusted with the government's most important classified secrets while working as the director of security for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence for almost 30 years," Klubes said. "Mr. Wolfe never breached that trust."