Indicted former Senate staffer appears in court as Russia leak probe set off partisan fireworks

Indicted former Senate staffer appears in court as Russia leak probe set off partisan fireworks

In this file photo from Thursday, June 8, 2017, James A. Wolfe, 58, the former director of security for the Senate Intelligence Committee, walks with former FBI Director James Comey as Comey departs after testifying in a closed hearing on the Russian intervention in the 2016 Presidential election before the United States Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. Wolfe was indicted on June 7, 2018 for lying to the FBI about repeated contacts with three reporters and passing classified information from the committee to two of them.

WASHINGTON - The former security director for the Senate Intelligence Committee made an initial court appearance on Friday after his indictment on charges that he lied to federal investigators probing a leak of information about a former campaign aide to President Donald Trump.

The indictment of James A. Wolfe, 57, indicates that FBI agents were trying to determine how reporters learned that Carter Page, the former Trump campaign aide, had contacts with Russian intelligence operatives. The contacts were revealed to the Senate committee by law enforcement officials in classified documents, according to the indictment, which was unsealed late Thursday after his arrest.

By Friday morning the case had already begun setting off partisan fireworks. The Breitbart news site and other conservative media dubbed Wolfe a "deep-state leaker," saying the charges against him bolstered their theory that a cabal of government officials conspired to go after Trump and members of his campaign team after he won the presidency.

Trump, speaking to reporters at the White House before departing for the G-7 summit in Quebec, called the case "very important - it's a very important leaker."

"It could be a terrific thing," Trump said "I'm a big, big believer in freedom of the press. But I'm also a believer in classified information has to remain classified."

The extent to which the case involves classified information remained uncertain. The chairman of the Intelligence Committee, North Carolina Republican Sen. Richard Burr, and the panel's ranking Democrat, Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, issued a joint statement noting that "the charges do not appear to include anything related to the mishandling of classified information" but adding that "the committee takes this matter extremely seriously."

The two said the news of Wolfe's arrest was "disappointing," noting that he had worked on the committee staff for more than 30 years, under both Democratic and Republican majorities. The Intelligence Committee has "fully cooperated" with investigators since learning about the case "late last year," they said.

The case took on additional sizzle because one of the reporters to whom Wolfe is alleged to have provided information, Ali Watkins, now works for The New York Times - a favorite target of Trump's - and had a romantic relationship with Wolfe, the paper reported.

Federal law enforcement officials seized several years' worth of Watkins' email and phone records in connection with the Wolfe investigation, The Times reported Thursday.

The seized material does not include the contents of Watkins' emails, but does include customer records from Verizon and Google covering two email accounts and a phone she used, the newspaper reported.

The seizures would mark the first time that the Justice Department under Trump is known to have authorized prosecutors to obtain a reporter's records as part of a leak investigation.

Federal prosecutors obtained reporters' records in several cases under President Barack Obama, but the Justice Department in Obama's second term adopted rules designed to shield reporters in many circumstances. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has said that the Justice Department may change some of those rules, which some prosecutors say have hindered investigations. No changes have been made public to date, however.

In a statement Thursday, Watkins' personal lawyer, Mark J. 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."

Free-press advocates also questioned whether prosecutors had acted appropriately.

"Seizing a journalist's records sends a terrible message to the public and should never be considered except as the last resort in a truly essential investigation," Bruce Brown, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said in a statement. The Justice Department should "explain how its actions adhered to its own guidelines," he said.

Wolfe was charged with three counts of making false statements to investigators when they interviewed him in December. He denied then being in contact with reporters, but, according to the indictment, he had communicated extensively with four reporters in part by using encrypted phone apps. The indictment indicates that investigators obtained copies of many of those messages.

Wolfe officially retired from the committee staff last month.

According to the indictment, a journalist identified as Reporter 2 published an online article on April 3, 2017, revealing the identity of a person the indictment calls "Male 1."

An article under Watkins' byline appeared online on the BuzzFeed news site on that date revealing Page's contact with a Russian intelligence operative.

The indictment does not name Watkins, but the description of Reporter 2's employment history matches hers.

Watkins began her career in Washington in 2013 as an intern for the McClatchy's Washington bureau while she was a journalism student at Temple University in Philadelphia. She later worked for BuzzFeed and Politico. She began working for The New York Times late last year, covering national security. The seized records all predate her employment there, the paper reported.

A prosecutor informed Watkins on Feb. 13 about the seizure of her records, The New York Times reported. The paper learned of the matter on Thursday, a day after the Intelligence Committee made a terse announcement that it was cooperating with the Justice Department "in a pending investigation."

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By: Tribune News Service

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