By Spencer S. Hsu,
A former Senate Intelligence Committee staffer charged with lying to the FBI about his contacts with reporters pleaded not guilty in federal court in Washington Wednesday as his attorneys said they would request a gag order in the case.
James A. Wolfe, 57, was indicted June 7 on three counts of making false statements after investigators swept up phone and email records of a New York Times reporter in an ongoing government crackdown on leaks.
“Not guilty,” Wolfe’s attorney, Preston Burton said at a 30-minute arraignment before U.S. Magistrate Deborah A. Robinson of the District of Columbia.
Free-press advocates have criticized prosecutors’ seizure of Times journalist Ali Watkins’s records as heavy-handled and warned it would chill disclosures of government misconduct. Watkins previously covered the committee, and had a now-ended romantic relationship with Wolfe, a 30-year committee veteran who retired as its director of security last month.
[In charging Senate staffer and seizing reporter’s records, Justice Dept. ignites debate over leak crackdown]
Wolfe’s responsibilities included managing day-to-day committee operations involving the secure handling, tracking and storage of its information, some of the most highly classified material provided to Congress.
The actions of a Customs and Border Protection agent who confronted Watkins about her confidential sources are being examined by the CBP’s Office of Professional Responsibility, the agency said in a statement Tuesday. Watkins, 26, then was a reporter at Politico.
Wolfe appeared with private attorneys Burton and Benjamin B. Klubes of the Buckley Sandler law firm in Washington. They told Robinson it was “highly likely” they would ask a judge to bar the government and defense from making statements while the case is pending that would endanger Wolfe’s “right to an impartial and fair jury.”
Burton in court cited unspecified statements by unnamed Justice Department officials that he said suggested that Wolfe compromised classified information, a crime with which he was not charged, and “glib remarks” by President Trump that “prejudged Mr. Wolfe.”
“I’m a big, big believer in freedom of the press,” Trump said to reporters last week about Wolfe’s arrest. “But I’m also a believer in classified information. It has to remain classified.”
Klubes cited the president in a statement outside the courthouse following the hearing. “We intend to file a motion seeking an order from the court prohibiting the government, including at all levels -- that means including President Trump from making improper and prejudicial statements regarding this case.”
Klubes said Wolfe “never breached that trust” given him over his career with the Senate and as a U.S. Army intelligence officer. “We are going to vigorously defend Mr. Wolf against this unfair, unjustified prosecution,” he said, which also “raises serious questions about the First Amendment and freedom of the press.”
Wolfe is not charged with disclosing classified information, although investigators who interviewed him in December told him they were probing multiple unauthorized disclosures of classified data to one or more reporters, prosecutors said in court filings.
Wolfe was charged with lying about his contacts with four reporters, including Watkins, and about giving reporters “nonpublic information” about matters before the committee.
When he was questioned by the FBI, prosecutors charged, Wolfe denied contact with the other three reporters — one of whom co-wrote a story that prosecutors said contained classified information — and denied having a personal relationship with any reporter despite their years-long romantic involvement.
[Ex-Senate staffer faces charges in leak investigation]
The indictment does not name the co-authors of the article said to include classified information but alleges one communicated at least five times with Wolfe using his committee email account over an 18-month period,
Watkins was not named in the indictment and has declined to comment, but told the Times that Wolfe was “not a source of classified information” for her during their relationship, the newspaper has reported.
In addition to Politico, Watkins previously worked at BuzzFeed covering national security issues, including the Senate committee.
The indictment highlighted an April 3, 2017, BuzzFeed story by Watkins that identified former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page as having met and passed documents to a Russian intelligence operative in New York in 2013.
Prosecutors alleged that on the day the Senate panel received information about Page, Wolfe and Watkins exchanged 82 texts and had a 28-minute phone call.
Wolfe was released pending his next hearing in the case set for June 19.
Read more: Mueller asks judge for protective order for evidence in Russian trolling case Judge orders Mueller probe to turn over names of European politicians in alleged Manafort lobbying scheme Former CIA officer Kevin Mallory found guilty of selling secrets to China