Top US Senate staffer charged in leak investigation

Intelligence Committee CIA nominee Gina Haspel center seated testifies during a confirmation hearing in Washington

The former head of security for the Senate Intelligence Committee was arrested Thursday on charges that he lied to the FBI about his contacts with reporters in an investigation into leaks. He faces three counts of false statements to a government agency, charges that could mean up to 15 years in federal prison, if he is found guilty.

Top Photo | James Wolfe, center, former director of security with the Senate Intelligence Committee, escorts former Federal Bureau of Investigation director James Comey to a secure room to continue his testimony on the 2016 election and his firing by President Donald Trump, on Capitol Hill in Washington, June 8, 2017.

The indictment read that Wolfe denied he was a source for multiple articles containing contained classified information provided by the executive branch to the committee.

Under Justice Department regulations, investigators must clear additional hurdles before they can seek business records that could reveal a reporter's confidential sources, such as phone and email records.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions said past year that the DOJ was aggressively pursuing around three timx as many leak investigations as were open at the end of Obama's second term - while Obama's DOJ prosecuted more leaks than all previous administrations combined. The seized records spanned years before and after Watkins joined the Times in 2017 to cover federal law enforcement. 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.

Mr. Wolfe's case led to the first known instance of the Justice Department going after a reporter's data under President Trump.

After admitting that he lied, Wolfe said that he did not have contact with any other reporters, but the indictment alleges he was in contact with three other reporters. Wolfe said that he did not. She also discovered details on China's harassment of American spies.And she was the first to report the name of the Russian woman, Olga Vinogradova, who met with former Trump adviser George Papadopoulos during the 2016 campaign.

Wolfe did not answer questions from reporters as he left the hearing. The seized records all predate her employment there, the paper reported. The Justice Department under President Barack Obama prosecuted more leak cases than all previous administrations combined.

As the case has moved forward, BuzzFeed News editor Ben Smith is arguing that the department's tactics are truly concerning - particularly with regard to the treatment of Watkins.

"We respect the important role that the press plays, and we'll give them respect, but it is not unlimited", Sessions said at the time.

"This will in no way interfere with our ongoing investigation", the statement said. "Whether it was really necessary here will depend on the nature of the investigation and the scope of any charges".

Elements within the government have always been suspected in engaging in selective leaks, including classified information, to the media in an effort to control the news narrative.

Coulson also ordered Wolfe not to access or discuss classified information with undisclosed people, not to possess a personal identification other than his own, and to make weekly check-ins with authorities - all were stipulations of release requested by the federal prosecutor, Phil Selden. Times spokeswoman Eileen Murphy said, "This decision by the Justice Department will endanger reporters' ability to promise confidentiality to their sources and, ultimately, undermine the ability of a free press to shine a much needed light on government actions".

Wolfe leaked information to reporters on Trump campaign figure Carter Page.

Watkins tweeted in 2013 about Netflix House of Cards character Zoe Barnes, an intrepid reporter involved in a brief romantic affair with then-Congressman Frank Underwood, a relationship many see as having parallels with Watkins and Wolfe's relationship.

Ms. Watkins broke the story for BuzzFeed on April 3, 2017.

An article under Watkins' byline appeared online on the BuzzFeed news site on that date revealing Page's contact with a Russian intelligence operative.

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