Political News

Ex-Senate Aide Pleads Guilty to Lying to FBI About Contacts With Reporter

Posted October 16, 2018 12:16 a.m. EDT
Updated October 16, 2018 12:18 a.m. EDT

WASHINGTON — A former Senate Intelligence Committee aide pleaded guilty Monday to lying to the FBI about his contacts with an unidentified journalist during an investigation into leaks of classified information related to coverage of Russia’s interference in the 2016 election.

The former aide, James A. Wolfe, 57, agreed to plead guilty, without a trial, to one count of making a false statement to FBI agents in an interview in December, when he flatly denied contacts with various reporters whose articles were under scrutiny in the leak investigation.

In exchange, prosecutors agreed to drop two other false-statement charges and to recommend a low offense level under which federal sentencing guidelines would call for zero to six months in prison. A sentencing hearing before Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson is set for Dec. 20.

Even if he avoids prison time, it was a sharp fall from grace for Wolfe, who as director of security for the Senate Intelligence Committee had been in charge of receiving and managing classified information provided to the oversight panel by the executive branch for 28 years.

His arrest in June brought to light that he had a relationship for more than three years with Ali Watkins, a New York Times reporter who at the time worked at BuzzFeed News and then Politico. But his guilty plea on Monday did not relate to Watkins; rather, it was to a charge that he had falsely denied contacts with a different reporter, who was not named.

In a court filing on Monday, prosecutors asserted that had they gone to trial, they would have submitted evidence about Wolfe’s relationship with Watkins, but they did not assert that they had evidence he had given her classified information.

After Wolfe’s arrest, it emerged that investigators had secretly seized years of records logging Watkins’ phone and email contacts without giving advance notice to the news organizations that employed her, as Justice Department guidelines generally require. Press freedom advocates sharply criticized that move.

President Donald Trump praised the arrest of Wolfe and labeled him a leaker even though he was not charged with unauthorized disclosures of classified information. Wolfe’s legal team unsuccessfully sought a court order that would have directed Trump to stop talking about the case because he was jeopardizing Wolfe’s ability to receive a fair trial.

In a joint statement on Monday, Wolfe’s lawyers — Preston Burton, Benjamin B. Klubes and Lauren R. Randell — reiterated that prosecutors had not charged their client with leaking classified secrets.

“We have seen numerous distortions on social and other media of the facts of this matter,” they said. “So we emphasize again today that Jim was never charged with having compromised classified information, nor is such a charge part of today’s plea. Jim has accepted responsibility for his actions and has chosen to resolve this matter now so that he and his family can move forward with their lives.”

The charge to which Wolfe pleaded guilty originated with the FBI’s scrutiny of an October 2017 article — apparently by a reporter for NBC News — that revealed that the Senate Intelligence Committee had issued a subpoena to Carter Page, who later became a foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign. That fact was “unclassified, but otherwise not publicly available,” according to a court filing that Wolfe agreed was accurate.

Mark Kornblau, a spokesman for NBC News, declined to comment.

A court filing said Wolfe used the encrypted messaging app Signal to tell the unidentified reporter that he had served Page with a subpoena, then gave that reporter Page’s contact information, and later told the reporter that Page was coming in for his testimony.

In an interview with FBI agents in December, Wolfe initially denied having had any personal or professional contact with the unnamed reporter who wrote about the subpoena, with Watkins or with a third reporter, who was also not named.

The FBI investigation apparently began after it was reported in an April 2017 article in BuzzFeed News that the bureau believed that Russian spies had tried to recruit Page in 2013. The fact that Russian spies had tried to recruit someone had already been revealed in court documents, but the identity of their target was not public information.

That article was written by Watkins, who has denied that Wolfe told her government secrets during their relationship.

Earlier this year, months before Wolfe’s arrest, the government notified Watkins that it had subpoenaed her communications records, but she did not tell The Times about it at the time. Management at the newspaper opened a review and eventually reassigned her from its Washington bureau to the Metro desk in New York.

It also emerged that a Border Patrol agent, Jeffrey Rambo, had obtained confidential travel records of both Watkins and Wolfe and in June 2017 had sought to recruit her as an informant against leakers. The Department of Homeland Security inspector general has opened an investigation into whether he used government data improperly or illegally.

A spokeswoman for the inspector general’s office did not return a call on Monday. Mark MacDougall, a lawyer for Watkins, said he hoped the plea deal “does not mean that the investigation of Jeff Rambo will just disappear.”

“If he really used government information to try to shake down a working journalist,” MacDougall continued, “that should bother everybody.”