Former Senate Staffer Wolfe Pleads Guilty to Lying to FBI in Leak Probe

October 15, 2018 Updated: October 15, 2018

The former security director for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence pleaded guilty on Oct. 15 to lying to the FBI about his contacts with reporters as part of the bureau’s investigation into unauthorized leaks.

James Wolfe, 57, pleaded guilty to making one false statement to agents, according to the Justice Department. He was indicted in June 2018 on three counts of making false statements. The other charges were dropped as part of the plea deal.

Wolfe was the director of security for the Senate intelligence committee for 28 years. In that role, he handled classified documents transported to and from the committee.

Wolfe made false statements to FBI agents who questioned him in December 2017 about his contacts with several reporters, including Ali Watkins, with whom he eventually admitted to having an extramarital affair since 2014. Watkins works for The New York Times.

Wolfe’s plea agreement shows that he was aware that he was not authorized to have contact with the media.

On April 11, 2017, an article authored by three reporters revealed that former Trump campaign volunteer Carter Page, who is referred to as MALE-1 in the plea deal, was under surveillance via a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrant. FISA warrants are issued by a secret court and are considered top secret.

The FBI opened an investigation seeking to determine, in part, “whether Wolfe had been in contact with reporters, and, if so, who those reporters were, the nature and extent of those contacts, and the means by which those contacts occurred.”

During the December 2017 interview, FBI agents asked Wolfe if he knew about the sources of Watkins’s article and whether he had a personal relationship with any reporters, among other queries. Wolfe told the agents that he did not, after which they presented him with a photo of himself with Watkins. Wolfe then admitted to lying to the agents, but said that he did not provide Watkins with any classified information, news leads, or other non-public committee matters.

Wolfe also denied having any personal or professional contact with other reporters regarding Senate intelligence committee matters. But evidence gathered by the FBI showed that he was, in fact, in contact with several reporters, using his personal cell phone, his Senate email account, and anonymizing messaging applications including Signal and WhatsApp.

In the plea deal (pdf), the prosecutors recommend a sentence of up to six months in prison and a fine of up to $9,500.

The FBI’s leak investigation started in April 2017, by which time the Trump administration had been subject to a barrage of leaks for months. In the four months following Trump’s inauguration on Jan. 20, 2017, the White House was subject to 125 leaked stories, according to a report (pdf) by the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. The rate of leaks with the capacity to damage national security was seven times higher than during comparable periods in the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

Follow Ivan on Twitter: @ivanpentchoukov