Ex-Senate aide indicted, accused of lying to Federal Bureau of Investigation about reporter contacts

Geraldine Edwards
June 11, 2018

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.

As part of its Wolfe investigation, investigators secretly seized a New York Times reporter's phone and email records, the newspaper said on Friday.

Watkins was swept up in the investigation of James Wolfe, a former staffer on the Senate Intelligence Committee, for supposedly leaking classified information.

The former aide, James A. Wolfe, 57, was charged with lying repeatedly to investigators about his contacts with three reporters.

It's rare for the government to obtain the communications of reporters as part of a leak investigation, and the seizure of Watkins's records, the first known case under the Trump administration, signals the aggressiveness with which officials are pursuing leaks to the press. Turns out Wolfe had dated Watkins for three years and they had a history of private communications. Rather, she was establishing relationships with people who might serve as sources for stories.

And James Risen, then a New York Times reporter, struggled for years to avoid testifying about his confidential source during the leak investigation of Jeffrey Sterling, a former Central Intelligence Agency officer.

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That same day, he exchanged dozens of text messages with "Reporter #2", who has since been identified as Watkins, and the pair had a 28-minute phone call.

After graduating college, Watkin was hired at McClatchy as a national security and regional politics reporter.

In another case, the indictment said, Mr. Wolfe used an encrypted messaging app to alert another reporter in October 2017 that he had served Mr. Page with a subpoena to testify before the committee. Wolfe said that he did not.

The seizing of records raises constitutional concerns about press freedom, activists said.

"I don't know. It really gets down to the question of who is behind this decision", he told Kiriakou. I don't see any exceptions in the [attorney general] guidelines for situations where the reporter has a multidimensional relationship with her source.

The Times did not respond to requests for comment Thursday evening.

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According to the Justice Department, Wolfe was in regular contact with multiple journalists, including meeting them at restaurants, in bars and in a Senate office building.

Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee Richard Burr (R-NC) and the committee's vice chairman Senator Mark Warner (D-VA)(5th R) stand with members of the committee as they speak to the media about the committee's findings and recommendations on threats to election infrastructure on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., March 20, 2018. She was contacted by Federal Bureau of Investigation agents last year about her three-year romantic relationship with Wolfe and told that the agents were investigating suspected information leaks to reporters, but she did not answer their questions, the Times reported Thursday. That was part of a leak investigation back then.

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

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.

Watkins' attorney, Mark MacDougall, had described the seizure as "disconcerting".

Though MALE-1 and Watkins are not identified in the indictment, the document states that a news outlet published an article on April 3, 2017, which revealed the identity of MALE-1. The indictment of Wolfe noted that the investigation sought to learn how Watkins had learned that Russian spies had tried to recruit the former adviser, Carter Page.

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

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