Veteran of Senate Intel Committee charged with lying to investigators in leak investigation

(CNN) — A longtime US Senate staffer was arrested late Thursday on charges of lying to federal agents as part of an investigation related to the unauthorized disclosure of non-public information, according to a federal indictment.

Federal prosecutors accuse James Wolfe, the former security director for the Senate Intelligence Committee, of lying to FBI agents in December 2017 about his contacts with three reporters, including through his use of encrypted messaging applications. According to the indictment, Wolfe made false statements to the FBI about providing two reporters with non-public information related to the matters occurring before the committee.

The indictment provides a detailed account of Wolfe’s interactions with one specific unnamed reporter. Prosecutors say Wolfe eventually admitted to being in a personal relationship with that reporter, dating back to 2014.

Yet he “maintained 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.”

Investigators obtained email and phone records for the pair allegedly showing “tens of thousands of electronic communications,” including a text message from Wolfe that read in part: “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 . . . .”

Wolfe’s identity had been previously undisclosed, but the Senate had quietly passed a resolution Wednesday evening authorizing lawmakers to provide the Justice Department with documents in connection to the investigation.

In a joint statement Thursday evening, Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr, Republican of North Carolina, and Vice Chairman Mark Warner, Democrat of Virginia, called the news troubling.

“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.”

The New York Times reported earlier Thursday evening that one of its reporters, Ali Watkins, had been contacted by federal investigators about the inquiry into Wolfe and a prosecutor notified her that her email and phone records — but not the content of her communications — were obtained. The Times reported Watkins denies receiving classified information from Wolfe during the their relationship.

In response to an inquiry from CNN, her lawyer Mark J. MacDougall said, “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,” MacDougall added.

A congressional source said the Senate panel was not aware that the Justice Department had seized a reporter’s records when it passed a resolution Wednesday to provide DOJ with documents tied to the investigation.

The case is likely to spur a robust discussion in the coming days ahead about targeting the communications of journalists as lawmakers continue to demand highly classified documents related to the Russia investigation.

The department has a media policy that dictates guidelines investigators must follow before seeking a reporter’s records.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions has previously told members of Congress that his department is taking the leak “epidemic” seriously, but Wolfe’s case appears to be the first publicly known instance of the Justice Department targeting a reporter’s data under President Donald Trump.

“The Attorney General has stated that investigations and prosecutions of unauthorized disclosure of controlled information are a priority of the Department of Justice,” said Assistant Attorney General John Demers in a statement. “The allegations in this indictment are doubly troubling as the false statements concern the unauthorized disclosure of sensitive and confidential information.”

Over the past year, as the committee’s Russia inquiry heated up, Wolfe was responsible for escorting high-profile witnesses into the committee’s secure spaces, including Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner.

Wolfe had worked under leadership of both parties since 1987, before abruptly departing the senate panel at the end of 2017.

Reached Wednesday by CNN’s Manu Raju, Wolfe denied being contacted by the DOJ or FBI.

“I have no knowledge,” Wolfe said, when asked about a Justice Department investigation.

Wolfe is expected to make his initial appearance in federal court Friday morning.