US Seeks 2-Year Sentence for Ex-Senate Staffer Indicted in Leak Probe

December 12, 2018 Updated: December 12, 2018
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Federal prosecutors in Washington are calling for a 24-month sentence for James Wolfe, the former senior Senate staffer who pleaded guilty to lying to FBI investigators probing the leak of a top-secret document.

In a court memo filed late on Dec. 11, prosecutors ask Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to issue a harsher sentence for Wolfe than the zero-to-six months outlined in the sentencing guidelines, arguing the defendant “disrupted an important governmental function and endangered national security.”

In a separate memo filed the same day, Wolfe’s attorney petitioned the judge to consider no prison time for Wolfe, pointing to the client’s lifelong public service, community work, and the “the very public shaming he has endured.”

The government’s sentencing memo reveals the scope of FBI scrutiny of Wolfe, extraordinary steps taken by the bureau to investigate what appeared to be a decades-long critical security breach, and the extent of Wolfe’s lies even after FBI agents caught him in December last year lying about an extramarital affair with Ali Watkins.

As director of security for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI), Wolfe was trusted with safeguarding top-secret intelligence community documents delivered to the Senators as part of their oversight work. FBI agents locked in Wolfe as part of a probe into last year’s unauthorized media leak of a top-secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) application used to surveil former Trump-campaign volunteer Carter Page.

As part of the leak probe, the investigators determined that Wolfe, 57, was engaged in an intimate relationship with Watkins, a college-intern reporter, since at least 2013. Watkins, who now works for The New York Times, published articles for several media outlets in Washington, which contained sensitive national security information related to the Senate intelligence committee.

According to court documents, upon discovering Wolfe’s “clandestine and inappropriate relationship” with Watkins, the FBI faced the dilemma of balancing the need to investigate potential leaks from Wolfe dating back three decades, with the need to notify the intelligence community about the potential breach, which could disrupt the committee’s oversight work. The bureau ultimately opted to take what prosecutors called an “extraordinary mitigating step” of only notifying the chairs of the intelligence committee about the findings.

Investigators first spoke to Wolfe in October last year in relation to the FISA leak. Unbeknownst to Wolfe, his phone was imaged while he spoke to the investigators under a search warrant the FBI obtained earlier. The image revealed additional communications between Wolfe and Watkins.

In December last year, FBI agents interviewed Wolfe again. After he denied having contacts with reporters, the agents showed Wolfe photos of himself with Watkins, including pictures taken during a foreign trip. Wolfe admitted to the affair, but denied having contact with any other reporters. The FBI would later find evidence that this was a lie, uncovering contact with at least three other reporters.

“While the investigation has not uncovered evidence that Wolfe disclosed classified information, he nevertheless repeatedly disclosed non-public, SSCI-sensitive information relating to national security investigations,” the prosecutors wrote in the sentencing memo.

The FBI would go on to arrest Wolfe seven months later on June 7, 2018. Between 20 and 30 agents conducted a raid on Wolfe’s quiet residential street, according to a letter Wolfe’s wife, Jane Wolfe, filed with the court. In the letter, Jane, a former FBI agent, complains about the raid, saying the public spectacle turned their home into the subject of gossip and unnecessary embarrassment.

Wolfe’s two sons also sent a letter of support to the court, asking their father not to be sentenced to prison.  Both of the current chairs of the Senate intelligence committee, Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), also submitted a letter asking for leniency.  They were joined by several former senior officials, including former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and Obama White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough.

Wolfe’s sentencing is scheduled for Dec. 20, which is also his birthday.

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