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Ex-Senate Employee Charged With Lying About Contacts With Reporters

Jun 8, 2018
Originally published on June 8, 2018 10:24 am
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A former aide to the Senate Intelligence Committee faces charges of lying to the FBI. He was arrested over his contacts with several reporters. James Wolfe is the man's name. He worked as security director for the Intelligence Committee, and his arrest appears to be part of the Trump administration's promised push to crack down on leakers. NPR's Ryan Lucas covers the Justice Department and is on the line.

Hey there, Ryan.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: So what exactly did Wolfe do according to - according to prosecutors?

LUCAS: Well, in an indictment unsealed last night, the government says that Wolfe was interviewed by the FBI back in December. Agents asked him at that interview whether he had had contacts with reporters. Wolfe told them that he did not. The FBI says that that was a lie. It says Wolfe had actually been in regular contact with several reporters, that he had used encrypted messaging apps like WhatsApp, Signal to keep in touch with these reporters, and that he had provided them with information that he had obtained as his job as head of security for the committee.

Now, the reporters aren't identified by name in the indictment. But last night, The New York Times published a story acknowledging that one of the reporters works for the Times. Her name is Ali Watkins. The government says that Wolfe provided information that helped Watkins with a scoop about - it turns out to be a story on Trump campaign foreign policy adviser Carter Page and about how Russians had tried to recruit him back in 2013.

Watkins wasn't working for the Times at the time. She was working for Buzzfeed. The indictment says that Wolfe originally denied knowing Watkins at all. The FBI then showed him a picture of the two of them together. He then acknowledged that they had had a long-term romantic relationship, so that's one of the things that Wolfe is accused of lying about.

INSKEEP: OK. So part of this is getting the phone records of a New York Times reporter or someone who worked for a number of news organizations including, ultimately, The New York Times. How common is that for reporters to have their records seized?

LUCAS: Well, it's rare but not unheard of. You can perhaps recall that back in 2013, the Justice Department seized phone records for reporters and editors at The Associated Press. That was part of a leak investigation back then. That said, this is certainly the first time that we're - that we're aware of this under President Trump, and it does raise First Amendment questions.

The New York Times said in a statement last night that communications between journalists and their sources need to be protected, that that's part of a free press. It criticized the Justice Department's secret seizure of phone records, email records, saying the decision will basically endanger the ability of reporters to promise confidentiality to their sources and ultimately to be able to report the news and shine light on government action.

INSKEEP: I'm glad you mentioned that case in 2013. That reminds us of a few things - one, that President Obama was sharply criticized by the media for going after leakers in the way that his administration did. Two, that the Trump administration has now picked that up in its own way. And three, I guess the other thing that's on my mind, Ryan, is that in spite of all of these prosecutions, we're in an unbelievably leaky environment.

LUCAS: We are, we are, you're right. And you mentioned the Obama administration. It was very aggressive about going after leaks. His administration prosecuted more leak investigations than all previous administrations combined up until that point. And President Trump, of course, has been very vocal about his desire to crack down on leaks. He criticized Attorney General Jeff Sessions at one point over that.

Sessions promised to get tough late last summer on leakers, root them out, had a special news conference on it. He said one of the things that they were looking at was reviewing policies affecting media subpoenas. And then late last year, he said that the Justice Department had 27 leak investigations underway, which was roughly triple the number of the Obama administration.

INSKEEP: Well, now we know of one of them. Ryan, thanks very much.

LUCAS: Thank you.

INSKEEP: NPR's Ryan Lucas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.