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Ex-Senate aide from Ellicott City charged with lying about reporter contacts placed on supervised release

Ex-Senate aide from Ellicott City charged with lying about reporter contacts placed on supervised release
James Wolfe, center, former director of security with the Senate Intelligence Committee. Federal prosecutors are accusing Wolfe with lying to the FBI about contact he had with reporters who covered the committee. (J. Scott Applewhite / AP)

A former employee of the Senate intelligence committee who has been arrested on charges of lying to the FBI about contacts he had with multiple reporters was placed on supervised release by a federal judge in Baltimore on Friday.

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 after prosecutors say he misled agents about his relationships with reporters.

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Maryland U.S. District Judge J. Mark Coulson granted Wolfe’s release, but with several conditions, at courthouse in downtown Baltimore on Friday afternoon. Wolfe must appear at 9 a.m. Monday at the FBI’s D.C. field office for processing and appear for a second preliminary hearing at 1:45 p.m. Tuesday before U.S. District Judge Robin M. Meriweather in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, where he has been indicted. Wolfe appeared at the Maryland courthouse because he was arrested in that jurisdiction, but the case will proceed in Washington.

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

The 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 same 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 that 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."

Wolfe, 58, of Ellicott City, appeared in court wearing a white button-down shirt and trousers, and was escorted into the courtroom by law enforcement officers in suits. He kept his hands behind his back but was not handcuffed. A number of reporters from national media outlets attended the brief hearing.

Wolfe spoke only briefly in the courtroom, responding to the judge’s questions, including whether he had read the incitement against him. He did not enter a plea.

He was represented by a public defender, and requested a public defender represent him for the remainder of the case. Coulson ordered a detailed financial statement to determine whether Wolfe is eligible or if he will need to contribute money to be represented by the public defender’s office.

As part of his release, he must turn in his passport and is prohibited from releasing classified materials, applying for any jobs that require a security clearance, and is prohibited from traveling outside Maryland or D.C., where he must attend court hearings, Coulson said. Wolfe must also check in weekly with pretrial services. If he violates those conditions, Coulson said Wolfe could face additional prison time.

Wolfe could not be reached for comment after the hearing.

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.

In a separate instance, after one journalist published a story about a witness who'd been subpoenaed to appear before the committee, Wolfe wrote to say, "Good job!" and "I'm glad you got the scoop"

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

"The Attorney General has stated that investigations and prosecutions of unauthorized disclosure of controlled information are a priority of the Department of Justice. The allegations in this indictment are doubly troubling as the false statements concern the unauthorized disclosure of sensitive and confidential information," Assistant Attorney General John Demers, the Justice Department's top national security official, said in a statement.

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

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."

Baltimore Sun reporter Jessica Anderson and Associated Press reporters Chad Day and Mary Clare Jalonick contributed to this article.

Copyright 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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