WASHINGTON — A former employee of the Senate intelligence committee appeared before a federal court Friday on charges that he lied about his contacts with reporters, a case that President Donald Trump said could be a “terrific thing” as his administration tries to crack down on classified leaks.
James A. Wolfe, the longtime director of security for the committee, was charged Thursday evening with three counts of lying to investigators. The committee is one of multiple congressional panels investigating potential ties between Russia and the Trump campaign.
Though Wolfe is not charged with actually 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.
Wolfe, 57, made a brief appearance in federal court in Baltimore on Friday. U.S. Magistrate Judge J. Mark Coulson released him from custody and ordered him to appear at the federal courthouse in Washington next week. He did not enter a plea.
Wolfe, of Ellicott City, Maryland, did not answer questions from reporters.
On Friday morning, 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.”
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 official contacts with journalists or discussing committee business with them. Phone and text records showed otherwise.
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 was in charge of most of the classified information provided to the panel by the executive branch.
In addition to this week’s indictments, electronic court records show that Wolfe was charged with second-degree assault, a misdemeanor, in June 2004, but prosecutors later dismissed the charge. His wife was listed as the complainant.
A spokesperson for the intelligence panel confirmed Wolfe’s charges were dropped in 2004 and said his security clearance was reissued in 2008. The clearances are reviewed every five years. A government employee’s security clearance can be denied if they have a criminal record of any sort.
“We cannot speak for the committee’s leadership at the time, but they likely would have been aware and the incident would have been looked at as part of the subsequent review by the FBI,” said the spokesperson, who declined to be identified because personnel matters are confidential.
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.”
Associated Press writers Chad Day and Jill Colvin contributed to this report.