Federal prosecutors Tuesday called for a two-year prison term for a former senior Senate Intelligence Committee aide who lied to FBI agents about his contact with reporters during a federal leak investigation, even as the committee’s chairman and two top members backed his request for probation.
James A. Wolfe, 57, pleaded guilty in October to one count of lying about using encrypted messaging in October 2017 to tell a journalist identified in court filings only as “Reporter #3” about a subpoena issued by the committee. He also admitted lying about speaking with three other reporters.
In a plea deal, prosecutors dismissed two counts related to the other interactions, leaving Wolfe facing a possible range of zero to six months in prison at sentencing Dec. 20 before U.S. District Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson in Washington.
In a 35-page sentencing recommendation, however, prosecutors with U.S. Attorney Jessie K. Liu of the District exercised their right to ask the judge for a tougher sentence, saying Wolfe, “caused significant disruption to a governmental function and significantly endangered the national security” by breaking the trust between the FBI and the oversight committee.
“All persons have an equal and absolute obligation to be truthful when making a statement in an FBI interview,” prosecutors Jocelyn Ballantine and Tejpal S. Chawla wrote. “Such persons — and particularly public officials such as Wolfe, who have a sworn duty to uphold the Constitution and laws of the United States — must know that there are severe consequences for violating that duty.”
Attached to Wolfe’s 24-page sentencing request, committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.), Vice Chairman Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) and former vice chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said they did not seek to dismiss the seriousness of the allegations against Wolfe but asked that his 30 years of service for the committee and 10 years in the U.S. Army and Army Reserve be considered when his punishment is being weighed.
“Jim has already lost much through these events, to include his career and reputation, and we do not believe there is any public utility in depriving him of his freedom,” they wrote.
In seeking community service, attorneys for Wolfe, of Ellicott City, Md., admitted he engaged in a romantic relationship with one of the other three reporters, Ali Watkins of the New York Times, whose email and phone records were later subpoenaed by the Justice Department.
Of Wolfe’s lies to the FBI, his attorneys wrote, “It is a decision, along with his breaking his marital vows and violating his former employer’s rules regarding contacts with the media, that he deeply regrets — and the consequences of those failings will follow him for the rest of his life.”
Wolfe was not charged with disclosing classified information, noted his attorneys, Preston Burton, Benjamin B. Klubes and Lauren Randell.
Wolfe was indicted June 7 on three counts of making false statements about his contacts with reporters while he served as the committee’s director of security, with duties that included overseeing the handling of secret and top-secret information turned over by the intelligence community for oversight purposes.
The government in June alleged that Wolfe, who had worked for the Senate committee from 1987 until May, lied to FBI agents in December 2017 about repeated contacts with four reporters, including through the use of encrypted messaging applications. He was also accused of lying about giving two reporters nonpublic information about matters before the committee.
Prosecutors said the FBI opened the criminal investigation in April 2017 after several leaked news articles, including that the FBI had obtained a secret court order in October 2016 to monitor the communications of Carter Page, a former foreign policy adviser to presidential candidate Donald Trump, in an investigation of possible links between the campaign and Russia.
The FBI zeroed on Wolfe as someone involved in transporting Top Secret materials related to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court order that were hand-carried from the Department of Justice to the committee, and discovered his relationship with Watkins extended back years.
Prosecutors wrote that at that point “the FBI faced a dilemma,” needing to covertly investigate Wolfe’s handling of classified material, but also to warn affected parties including the committee to take steps to protect that data.
In the end, the FBI “took the extraordinary … step of limiting” its initial notification to the committee’s chairman and ranking member, and getting a court-approved “delayed-notice” warrant to image Wolfe’s smartphone in October 2017 — while he was meeting with FBI investigators — prosecutors said.
On the count to which Wolfe pleaded guilty, a different reporter on Oct. 17, 2017, asked Wolfe, using the encrypted messaging app Signal, to provide contact information for Page, who had been subpoenaed by the committee, and Wolfe obliged, according to the indictment. Later that day, that reporter published a story disclosing the subpoena. After the story published, Wolfe congratulated the reporter, using Signal, stating “Good job!” and “I’m glad you got the scoop,” the indictment said.