Senate staffer charged with lying to FBI over contacts with media


Watkins had a relationship with James A. Wolfe, the Senate Intelligence Committee's retired director of security.

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

Wolfe, who is 58, was arrested on Thursday on three counts of making false statements.

A "BuzzFeed spokesman told The DCNF that the company does not dispute The Times' reporting on Wolfe's indictment, meaning that at least some BuzzFeed editors were aware of Watkins' relationship with the Senate Intelligence aide", writes media reporter Joe Simonson.

"The records of that Times reporter were seized in the course of the FBI investigation, which is also troubling, because there are procedures that provide seizure of reporter records, emails and phone records only as a last resort, only after certain threshold standards are met and only after notification to the reporter".

Wolfe's arrest and indictment follows a previous threat from Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who said the department planned to ratchet up its probe of internal leaks. 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. Late past year, Sessions said the department had 27 open leak investigations - dwarfing what had also been a high number of leak probes pursued by the Obama administration. It was not clear why investigators chose to take the extraordinary step of obtaining Watkins's phone and email records and what other avenues they had pursued.

"Journalists must be able to protect their confidential sources", the Committee to Protect Journalists said, adding that this was the "first known incident" in Trump's presidency in which prosecutors collected such data from reporters.

The Times reporter, Ali Watkins, declined to comment on the matter. Her name and two other McClatchy reporters are listed on the Pulitzer web site.

One of those scoops was said to be Watkins' story on April 3, 2017, for Buzzfeed News that revealed the FBI was investigating former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page because a Russian spy attempted to recruit him in 2013.

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The investigation of Wolfe came to light this week after the committee said that it was cooperating with the Justice Department "in a pending investigation arising out of the unauthorized disclosure of information".

At the time, Watkins was a reporter for BuzzFeed.

When asked about a story written by Watkins, identified in the indictment as "Reporter #2", he denied knowing who her source for the story was.

Wolfe has not been charged with mishandling or disclosing classified information. Wolfe, 57, worked for the committee for almost three decades under both Republican and Democratic leadership. "It is thus unclear whether the search complied even with the Justice Department's own guidelines relating to surveillance of the media".

But the government says that Wolfe was in frequent communication with several journalists by phone, through encrypted messaging apps and in meetings at bars and restaurants. Wolfe reportedly first denied and then acknowledged a years-long romantic relationship with Watkins, who worked at Buzzfeed News and Politico prior to the Times. And the Times coverage of Wolfe's arrest does not ignore how Obama got this ball rolling. According to the indictment, Wolfe told the Federal Bureau of Investigation he didn't have contact with several reporters (including Watkins) who had been writing about Page.

Federal prosecutors obtained reporters' records in several cases under President Barack Obama, but the Justice Department in Obama's second term adopted rules created to shield reporters in many circumstances.

The details about the communications were gathered by investigators from communications records seized by the Justice Department.

The indictment alleges Wolfe also had contact with three other reporters, referred to only as Reporter #1, Reporter #3 and Reporter #4.

"Freedom of the press is a cornerstone of democracy", said Eileen Murphy, a Times spokeswoman.