A former security director for the Senate Intelligence Committee has pleaded guilty to one count of giving a false statement to FBI agents looking into leaks of national security information to several reporters, including one at the New York Times he dated, the Justice Department announced Monday.
James A. Wolfe, 58, was in charge of maintaining all classified information coming from the executive branch to the Senate panel. He served as the panel's security director for 29 years.
"Did you make a false statement to the FBI?" D.C. district court judge Ketanji B. Jackson asked Wolfe in court on Monday. Wolfe had been scheduled to appear for a routine status hearing, before prosecutors announced that "substantial" negotiations had produced a guilty plea.
"I did, your honor," Wolfe responded.
Wolfe lied to the FBI in December 2017 about contacts he had with three reporters, according to a statement of offense released Monday as part of his guilty plea. He also allegedly lied about giving two reporters non-public information about committee matters. His guilty plea on Monday to one count means that the other two counts against him will be dismissed.
President Trump this summer said Wolfe's arrest “could be a terrific thing" and called him a "very important leaker."
“I’m a big, big believer in freedom of the press,” Trump told reporters. "But I’m also a believer in classified information. It has to remain classified."
"I’m a big, big believer in freedom of the press. But I’m also a believer in classified information."
In a statement released after Wolfe's guilty plea, his lawyers emphasized he had not been charged with leaking classified information.
"Jim has accepted responsibility for his actions and has chosen to resolve this matter now so that he and his family can move forward with their lives," the attorneys said in the statement. "We will have much more to say about the facts and Jim's distinguished record of nearly three decades of dedicated service to the Senate and the intelligence community at his sentencing hearing."
Wolfe is set for sentencing on Dec. 20, and although the charge carries a maximum potential sentence of five years and a fine of $250,000, he realistically faces up to six months in prison according to federal sentencing guidelines.
Earlier this year, the New York Times revealed that federal investigators had seized years' worth of email and phone records relating to one of its reporters, Ali Watkins. She previously had a three-year romantic relationship with Wolfe, the Times reported, adding that the records covered a period of time before she joined the paper. Watkins worked previously for BuzzFeed, Politico and McClatchy.
Wolfe's contacts with Watkins specifically did not appear related to the charge he admitted on Monday to lying about.
Wolfe allegedly exchanged "tens of thousands of electronic communications" with one reporter, including one that read, ""I've watched your career take off even before you ever had a career in journalism. . . . I always tried to give you as much information that I could and to do the right thing with it so you could get that scoop before anyone else . . . ."
But Wolfe told FBI agents that "he had never disclosed to REPORTER #2 classified information or information that he learned as Director of Security for the (Committee) that was not otherwise publicly available," according to Monday's court documents and his indictment.
Mark MacDougall, Watkins’ attorney, said after his indictment: "It's always disconcerting when a journalist's telephone records are obtained by the Justice Department — through a grand jury subpoena or other legal process. Whether it was really necessary here will depend on the nature of the investigation and the scope of any charges."
Wolfe used several means to contact reporters, including Signal and WhatsApp, according to court papers. He also met “clandestinely in person,” in secluded areas of the Hart Senate Office Building, according to his indictment and statement of offense.
News of Wolfe's guilty plea comes weeks after secret text messages revealed that anti-Trump former FBI officials Peter Strzok and Lisa Page had discussed a “media leak strategy” amid the Russia probe -- even as Strzok's attorney claimed the text merely referred to efforts to stop leaks.
In a September letter to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., raised “grave concerns” about an “apparent systemic culture of media leaking” among high-level FBI and Justice Department officials to release information damaging to Trump. He cited two text exchanges in April 2017 between now-fired FBI agent Strzok and former FBI attorney Page, in which the two discuss the bureau's "media leak strategy."
"I had literally just gone to find this phone to tell you I want to talk to you about media leak strategy with DOJ before you go," Strzok texted Page on April 10, 2017, according to Meadows, who cited newly produced documents from the Justice Department.
On April 22, Strzok wrote, "article is out! Well done, Page," and on April 12 he told her that two negative articles about Page's "namesake" would soon come out, according to Meadows. That was an apparent reference to Carter Page, the former Trump adviser whom the FBI surveilled for months after obtaining a warrant from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court.
Republicans have charged that the FBI provided misleading or inaccurate information to the FISA court to obtain the warrant. In particular, the FBI incorrectly suggested to the FISA court that a Yahoo News article provided an independent basis to monitor Page, when that article relied on the same source the FBI had cited earlier: ex-spy Christopher Steele, who worked for a firm hired by the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and the Hillary Clinton campaign.
Page on Monday announced he was suing the DNC and other entities for allegedly spreading false and defamatory reports about his supposed dealings with Russians.
Fox News' Jake Gibson and Edmund DeMarche contributed to this report.