Had a romantic relationship with one of the reporters.
The Department of Justice (DOJ) indicted James Wolfe, the Senate Intelligence Committee’s former security director, for allegedly lying to the FBI about possible leaks to three reporters.
The FBI investigated how New York Times reporter Ali Watkins “learned that Russian spies in 2013 had tried to recruit Carter Page, a former Trump foreign policy adviser” after she published an article about it at BuzzFeed.
Turns out, Watkins and Wolfe had a relationship for three years.
Wolfe’s job included “safeguarding classified and other sensitive information shared with lawmakers.” He retired in May after he stopped performing his duties in December.
The DOJ told Watkins in February that officials grabbed “years of customer records and subscriber information from telecommunications companies, including Google and Verizon, for two email accounts and a phone number of hers.” However, they did not retrieve the contents of said communications.
These communications happened before she joined The New York Times in December, but covers her time at BuzzFeed and Politico.
Wolfe denied knowing Watkins when the FBI asked him about her, but once they presented a picture of the two of them to him, he confessed. From Fox News:
Wolfe allegedly admitted to FBI agents in 2017 that he lied about his relationship with a reporter identified in court papers as “REPORTER #2.” He admitted the relationship after he was shown photos of the two of them together, according to the indictment.
Wolfe was allegedly in contact with “REPORTER #2” and they exchanged tens of thousands of electronic communications and often daily phone calls. He would also meet at the reporter’s apartment, court papers alleged.
Wolfe had extensive contact with reporters about “MALE-1,” who was reportedly identified as Carter Page, a Trump campaign adviser.
Wolfe received classified information about “MALE-1” on the same day he exchanged 82 text messages with “REPORTER #2,” according to the indictment. A few weeks later, “REPORTER #2” published an online article that revealed the identity of “MALE-1.”
On April 3, 2017, Watkins’ byline appeared on a BuzzFeed article that revealed that Page had met with a Russian intelligence operative in 2013.
Wolfe allegedly called “REPORTER #2” nearly a half-hour after the story went live and had a phone conversation for about seven minutes.
In December 2017, Wolfe allegedly messaged “REPORTER #2.”
“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 (sic) that I could and to do the right thing with it so you could get that scoop before anyone else. … I always enjoyed the way that you would pursue a story,like nobody else was doing in my hal1way (sic). I felt like I was part of your excitement and was always very supportive of your career and the tenacity that you exhibited to chase down a good story,” the message read, according to the indictment.
— Patrick Poole (@pspoole) June 8, 2018
The indictment says that Wolfe insists he did not provide anyone with “classified information or news leads.” The charges do not include “disclosing classified information.”
On Wednesday, the Senate passed a resolution unanimously on the floor to provide the DOJ with documents concerning this investigation. A source said that the Senate did not know the DOJ seized communications from Watkins at the time. From CNN:
“While the charges do not appear to include anything related to the mishandling of classified information, the Committee takes this matter extremely seriously. We were made aware of the investigation late last year, and have fully cooperated with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Justice since then,” they said.
“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. 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.”
Seizing a journalist’s records is not an easy task due to the First Amendment. After this happened under President Barack Obama, the DOJ changed its rules. From The New York Times:
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. In particular, the rules require the government to have “made all reasonable attempts to obtain the information from alternative, non-media sources” before investigators may target a reporter’s information.
In addition, the rules generally require the Justice Department to notify reporters first to allow them to negotiate over the scope of their demand for information and potentially challenge it in court. The rules permit the attorney general to make an exception to that practice if he “determines that, for compelling reasons, such negotiations would pose a clear and substantial threat to the integrity of the investigation, risk grave harm to national security, or present an imminent risk of death or serious bodily harm.”
Top Justice Department officials must sign off on any attempt to gain access to a journalist’s communications records.
The law does not protect “[I]nformation gathered by reporters.” We do not know if “investigators exhausted all of their avenues of information before confiscating” Watkins’ information, but as far as we know, no one told Watkins beforehand.
From The New York Times:
“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,” Mark MacDougall, an attorney for Ms. Watkins, told the New York Times. “Whether it was really necessary here will depend on the nature of the investigation and the scope of any charges.”
A person familiar with the matter said Ms. Watkins disclosed the relationship when she joined the New York Times. A spokeswoman for the New York Times said the seizure of a reporter’s records undermines media freedom.
“Freedom of the press is a cornerstone of democracy and we believe that communications between journalists and their sources demand protection,” said Eileen Murphy, senior vice president for corporate communications at the paper. “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. That should be a grave concern to anyone who cares about an informed citizenry.”
Ben Smith, the editor in chief for BuzzFeed, said, “We’re deeply troubled by what looks like a case of law enforcement interfering with a reporter’s constitutional right to gather information about her own government.”
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