James A. Wolfe, a former Senate Intelligence Committee official, left court in Washington on Wednesday after entering a not guilty plea before a federal judge.
WASHINGTON—Former Senate staffer James A. Wolfe pleaded not guilty on Wednesday on charges of lying to the Federal Bureau of Investigation in a case that has drawn attention to a renewed government push in pursuit of media leaks.
In a brief appearance before a federal magistrate judge in Washington, D.C., Mr. Wolfe entered a plea and then was released with some restrictions on travel, firearm ownership and handling of classified information.
Mr. Wolfe was arrested last week and charged with lying to the FBI about his contacts with reporters while agents were conducting an investigation into leaks of classified information to journalists. He wasn't charged with leaking any information but the indictment lays out multiple contacts with at least four reporters who cover national security matters.
Mr. Wolfe “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. Mr. Wolfe never breached that trust,” said Benjamin Klubes, an attorney for Mr. Wolfe.
His attorneys said that Mr. Wolfe never leaked anything classified and said that people in the government—including President Donald Trump —had made prejudicial statements about their client implying that he had done so.
They said they would seek a judicial order prohibiting government officials, including the president, from making “improper and prejudicial” statements about the case.
“It’s very interesting that they caught a leaker,” Mr. Trump told reporters at the White House last week. “It’s a very important leaker.”
The indictment doesn’t identify the reporters, but The Wall Street Journal previously reported that one of the journalists referred to in the indictment was Ali Watkins, who works for the New York Times.
Mr. Wolfe was also romantically involved with Ms. Watkins for a number of years. She has denied that he provided her with any classified information.
Government investigators seized Ms. Watkin’s records as part of their investigation—an unusual step that raised concerns from press freedom advocates about the ability of reporters to protect their sources and report without fear.
“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,” Mark MacDougall, an attorney for Ms. Watkins, told the Times last week.
The Times said it was conducting a review of Ms. Watkins’s work, including questions about the nature of her relationship with Mr. Wolfe. A spokeswoman for the paper raised concerns about the “broad” seizure of a reporter’s records by the Justice Department.
Ms. Watkins covered the Senate Intelligence Committee first for McClatchy then for BuzzFeed and Politico. When she was still a senior in college at Temple University, she was part of an investigative team at McClatchy that broke news about tensions between the Senate Intelligence Committee and the Central Intelligence Agency—specifically on the existence of an investigation into whether the CIA spied on the committee.
Tim Grieve, vice president of news for McClatchy, condemned the seizure of a reporter’s records. He said that her relationship raised “at least the appearance of a conflict of interest. We are reviewing the facts of the matter now and can’t and won’t speculate on whether any further action is warranted.”
Mr. Wolfe worked for the Senate Intelligence Committee for three decades until his retirement earlier this year as director of security—a nonpartisan, nonpolitical position that gave him access to secret and top secret documents that the committee as part of its oversight of the nation’s intelligence agencies. An online profile indicates he previously worked as an intelligence analyst for the U.S. Army in the 1980s.
Mr. Wolfe also has a personal connection to federal law enforcement. His wife was a senior FBI official until her retirement 2016. She held senior positions investigating financial fraud and combating terrorism, according to a biography page posted by her alma mater Western Michigan University. She joined Charter Communications as head of corporate security after her retirement from the FBI. She didn't respond to a request for comment.
Mr. Wolfe’s indictment shows newly aggressive tactics by the government in clamping down on leaks to the media. The Obama administration pursued a number of high-profile leak investigations but backed down in a key case about seeking to make a reporter testify about his sources.
It also emerged this week that Ms. Watkins was approached in the summer of 2017 by a U.S. Customs and Border Protection official who initially offered to be a source for her, according to a person familiar with the matter. The official then encouraged her to help the government combat leaks to reporters. Ms. Watkins was working for Politico at the time.
The official, who never gave his name but was later identified by Ms. Watkins as Jeffrey Rambo, said that he knew about her relationship with Mr. Wolfe and cited travel records as part of his approach, the person said.
Leak investigations are typically not conducted by Customs and Border Protection and government officials don’t typically approach journalists asking for their sources. The agency said it is investigating the matter.
“CBP takes all allegations of employee misconduct seriously. The allegation has been immediately referred to CBP’s Office of Professional Responsibility. We encourage all members of the public to report any potential misconduct immediately so that it may be investigated,” a spokeswoman said.
Several months after that, Mr. Wolfe was approached by the FBI as part of a criminal investigation into leaks, according to a criminal complaint filed by the government. He was given an FBI questionnaire that asked him about contact with several reporters—including Ms. Watkins.
The investigation that ensnared Mr. Wolfe is about the disclosure of information about Carter Page, a onetime Trump adviser who was secretly surveilled by the U.S. government on the suspicion of being a foreign spy. Mr. Page hasn’t been accused of any wrongdoing and his name is redacted in the indictment of Mr. Wolfe but the dates and circumstances described in the indictment match numerous media reports about Mr. Page.
At least two of the articles referenced by the government in their indictment of Mr. Wolfe don't appear to contain information that is classified.
One of those stories by Ms. Watkins revealed that Mr. Page was once approached by suspected Russian spies and that his name appeared in a redacted form in a 2015 court document. Names of unindicted individuals are typically redacted in legal filings for privacy purposes but generally, they are not classified.
A second article revealed that the Senate Intelligence Committee had issued a subpoena to Mr. Page.
Bradley Moss, an attorney who specializes in national security, said that revealing the existence of a subpoena isn’t considered disclosure of classified information—though it could be grounds for termination from a sensitive government position.
A government employee who disclosed such a subpoena or refused to answer questions from law enforcement about contacts with reporters “would almost certainly be fired” Mr. Moss said.