What We Know About That Ex-Senate Staffer’s Leaks To Reporters

BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP

The last 24 hours have brought a wave of revelations about how key pieces of information from the Senate’s Russia investigation were made public, as well as the Trump era’s first indictment involving leaks to the press.

James Wolfe, the Senate Intelligence Committee’s former director of security, is accused of being in regular contact with at least four reporters covering national security, and providing two of them with sensitive information related to the committee’s work. Wolfe was arrested Thursday and charged on three counts of lying to the FBI about his contacts with journalists. He is expected to appear in federal court in his home state of Maryland on Friday.

We know that one of the reporters was The New York Times’ Ali Watkins, formerly of BuzzFeed and Politico, whose phone and email records were secretly seized. We also know that much of the leaked information centered on former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page. Other details — including the names of the other three journalists — have yet to emerge.

But it’s clear that the Trump administration’s aggressive pursuit of leakers is starting to collect scalps.

The clearest set of facts laid out in the indictment involves Wolfe’s interactions with Watkins, with whom he had a three-year romantic relationship between 2014 and 2017.

On March 17, 2017, Wolfe, who was tasked with protecting sensitive information shared with the committee’s lawmakers and with escorting witnesses to their testimony, received a classified document regarding “Male-1,” or Page.

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.

Just over two weeks later, on April 3, Watkins published a bombshell story for Buzzfeed detailing that Page in 2013 met with and provided documents to Victor Podobnyy, a Russian intelligence operative who sought to recruit him.

Podobnyy, who was later charged by the U.S. government for his undercover spying, described Page as “an idiot” who provided him with documents on the U.S. energy business, according to a phone call transcript included in the U.S. court filing viewed by Buzzfeed.

On the day the story appeared, Watkins and Wolfe exchanged a flood of messages and spoke repeatedly on the phone.

The Times reported that Watkins had denied to the FBI that she used Wolfe as a source for classified information. In a statement to the newspaper, her personal lawyer, Mark MacDougall, called it “disconcerting” that the Justice Department had obtained a journalist’s telephone records. BuzzFeed News editor in chief Ben Smith told the Times that the site was “troubled by what looks like a case of law enforcement interfering with a reporter’s constitutional right to gather information about her own government.”

The other central incident laid out in the indictment involved the committee’s move to subpoena Page to testify in October 2017.

Per the filing, Wolfe told “Reporter #3” on Oct. 16 that he served Page with a subpoena, and the next day agreed to the reporter’s request to provide Page’s contact information. On Oct. 17, “Reporter #3” published an article reporting on the subpoena. Wolfe followed up congratulating the reporter’s work, adding, “I’m glad you got the scoop.”

The identify of that journalist has not yet been revealed, in part because multiple news organizations, including NBC News and CNN, published stories on Page’s subpoena on Oct. 17. Multiple bylines were attached to each article, and each sourced their information to “a source familiar with the matter.”

Wolfe’s apparent communication via texts, emails, calls, and in-person conversations with these journalists contradicts sworn statements he made to the FBI in December denying having contact with reporters.

Page reacted to the news of Wolfe’s indictment on Twitter, writing that it was now “more understandable” how NBC staffers always knew he’d be showing up for appearances before the Senate committee.

In a joint statement, committee chair Richard Burr (R-NC) and vice chair Mark Warner (D-VA) said they were “troubled” by the charges against Wolfe but planned to move forward with their investigation.

“This news is disappointing, as the former staffer in question served on the Committee for more than three decades, and in the Armed Forces with distinction,” Burr and Warner said. “However, we trust the justice system to act appropriately and ensure due process as this case unfolds. This will in no way interfere with our ongoing investigation, and the Committee remains committed to carrying out our important work on behalf of the American people.”

This post has been updated to note that Wolfe appeared in federal court on Friday in Maryland, not Washington, D.C.

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