U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

Senate Intel Committee staffer James Wolfe accused of lying to FBI about contacts with journalists

Incident Details

Date of Incident
June 7, 2018

Leak Case

Alleged Recipient of Leak
Charged under Espionage Act
James Wolfe Legal Defense Fund
— James Wolfe Legal Defense Fund
December 20, 2018 - Update

Senate Intelligence Committee aide sentenced to prison for lying to FBI

Former Senate Intelligence Committee aide James Wolfe was sentenced by a federal judge to two months in prison and ordered to pay a $7,500 fine for lying to FBI agents about his contact with reporters on Dec. 20, 2018.

Wolfe had pleaded guilty in October to one count of lying about using encrypted messaging in October 2017 to communicate with a journalist about a committee subpoena, and admitted to lying about speaking with three other reporters, according to The Washington Post.

During his testimony, CNN reported, Wolfe maintained he had never compromised classified information.

October 15, 2018 - Update

Wolfe pleads guilty

On Oct. 15, 2018, Wolfe pleaded guilty to one count of lying to federal investigators, BuzzFeed News reports.

“Jim Wolfe today entered a guilty plea to a single count: a false-statement charge related to FBI questioning during an interview last December about media contacts," his attorneys said in a statement after the court hearing. “We have seen numerous distortions on social and other media of the facts of this matter. So we emphasize again today that Jim was never charged with having compromised classified information, nor is such a charge part of today’s plea.”

June 13, 2018 - Update

Wolfe pleads not guilty

On June 8, 2018, Trump was asked by reporters about Wolfe’s arrest and said: “It’s very interesting that they caught a leaker in a very important — it’s a very important leaker. ... I’m a big, big believer in freedom of the press, but I’m also a believer in classified information. Has to remain classified.”

Wolfe has not been charged with leaking classified information, only with lying to federal agents.

At a court hearing on June 13, Wolfe formally entered a “not guilty” plea. During the hearing, one of Wolfe’s attorneys criticized Trump’s comments about the case.

“There have been a number of statements issued by the government. ... That’s not what he’s charged with,” the attorney, Preston Burton of Buckley Sandler, said. “That issue’s been compounded by some glib remarks made by the president as he boarded Marine One last week.”

Ben Klube, another one of Wolfe’s attorneys, told reporters after the hearing that he would seek an order from the court preventing Trump from talking about the case.

“We intend to file a motion seeking an order from the court prohibiting the government, including all levels, that means including President Trump, from making improper and prejudicial statements regarding this case,” he said.

June 7, 2018

James Wolfe, the longtime director of security for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, was indicted on June 7, 2018, on three counts of making false statements to FBI agents, who had interviewed him while investigating leaks of classified information to journalists. On June 8, the indictment was unsealed.

According to the unsealed indictment, FBI agents interviewed Wolfe in December 2017 and asked him whether he had been in contact with any reporters, whether he had personal or professional relationships with any reporters, and whether he had given information (classified or unclassified) to reporters that he was not authorized to disclose. According to the indictment, Wolfe falsely told the FBI that he had not.

The indictment states that he specifically denied knowing Ali Watkins, a national security reporter who currently works at The New York Times and previously worked at BuzzFeed and Politico. When FBI agents later showed Wolfe a photo of him with Watkins, he admitted that he had been in a personal relationship with her for three years, but said that he had not disclosed any confidential information to her.

According to the Times, the Department of Justice informed Watkins in February that it had seized years’ worth of her phone and email records as part of its investigation into the leaks. Although the Justice Department did not obtain the content of her phone calls, texts, and emails, it did obtain all of the metadata — which reveals who she was in contact with and when she was in contact with them. The Justice Department cited some of those records in the indictment to establish that Wolfe and Watkins spoke to one another shortly before and after she published major stories.

So far, Wolfe has not been charged with disclosing classified information to Watkins or any other reporters.

The FBI initially interviewed Wolfe as part of an investigation into leaks of classified information to reporters, but the grand jury only indicted him on charges of lying to FBI agents. It did not indict him on any charges of disclosing classified information. In a press release announcing the indictment, the Department of Justice only alleged that Wolfe had leaked “sensitive and confidential” information, not classified information. Watkins told the Times that Wolfe was not a source of classified information for her.

Wolfe is the third person since Trump took office to be prosecuted in connection with a leak investigation. In June 2017, NSA contractor Reality Winner was accused of sending news organization The Intercept a classified document about the NSA’s investigation into Russian hacking attempts. In March 2018, former FBI agent Terry Albury was accused of sending The Intercept classified documents that instruct FBI agents on how to cultivate informants and surveil journalists.

Both Winner and Albury were charged under the Espionage Act — a century-old law originally targeted at foreign spies that has more been used to prosecute people who give classified information to journalists. Albury took a plea deal, while Winner has continued to fight her case, while repeatedly being denied bail.

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker catalogues press freedom violations in the United States. Email tips to [email protected].