A longtime aide to the Senate Intelligence Committee was sentenced Thursday to two months in prison for lying to FBI agents about his contact with reporters during a federal leak investigation, a punishment imposed after pleas for leniency by the committee’s chairman and two top-ranking members.
James A. Wolfe, 58, 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 to lying about speaking with three other reporters.
For three decades, he was the Senate committee’s director of security, whose duties included overseeing the handling of secret and top-secret information turned over to the panel by the intelligence community for oversight purposes.
“I am beyond embarrassed, beyond humiliated,” Wolfe told U.S. District Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson in Washington federal court.
Repeatedly pausing to gather his composure, he said through tears that his disclosures to journalists began after he engaged in an extramarital affair with a New York Times reporter.
“I compounded the lapse in judgment by sharing information with reporters after that relationship ended,” he said. “I lied to protect my wife, my sons, and selfishly I lied to protect myself and my job.”
But, Wolfe added, he “never compromised classified information, never jeopardized national security.”
Wolfe had asked for probation.
“We may well be living in an era of alternative facts, but if you propagate falsehoods to government investigators . . . you will be taken seriously and treated seriously because you are committing a serious federal crime,” Jackson said. “As a government official who worked specifically in the area of information security, you understood the importance of the FBI’s investigation.”
Prosecutors dismissed two counts of making false statements related to other interactions with reporters but had asked the judge to impose a tougher sentence.
“In the government’s view, it’s more than the falsehoods,” prosecutor Jocelyn Ballantine said in court. “It’s . . . a course of duplicitous conduct over a four-year period.”
Jackson rebuffed prosecutors’ request, saying she was only judging Wolfe’s criminal conduct.
“Having an affair is not a crime, maintaining relationships with reporters is not a crime, even giving sensitive nonpublic but not classified information to a reporter is not a crime,” she said.
Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.), Vice Chairman Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) and former vice chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) had joined Wolfe’s probation request, citing his years with the committee and 10 years in the Army and reserves in a letter to the judge.
“We do not believe there is any public utility in depriving him of his freedom,” they wrote.
Wolfe, of Ellicott City, Md., admitted he engaged in a romantic relationship with Ali Watkins, a reporter for the New York Times whose email and phone records were subpoenaed by the Justice Department.
“There are unusual features to this case,” defense attorney Preston Burton said in court, including a “sensational affair.”
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 contact with four reporters, which included 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 following 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 in 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 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 to say, “Good job!” and “I’m glad you got the scoop,” the indictment said.