WASHINGTON (CN) – Indicted the night before on charges of lying to the FBI about his contacts with journalists, longtime former Senate Intelligence Committee staffer James Wolfe heard the charges against him Friday afternoon from a federal judge.
Wolfe, who spent 29 years as the committee’s director of security, faces three counts of making false statements to federal investigators. Represented by assistant federal public defender Christian Lassiter, the 57-year-old resident Wolfe wore a white shirt but no tie for his first court appearance.
Though federal prosecutors initially announced that Wolfe entered a not-guilty plea at the hearing, they retracted that message 19 minutes later.
Wolfe is not charged with disclosing classified information, but the government says he lied when the FBI asked about news stories that contained classified information given by the executive branch to committee lawmakers who are investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Wolfe initially denied having any contacts with specific journalists or relaying sensitive information about to the committee’s work to them, according to the indictment. When confronted with a photograph showing him with New York Times reporter Ali Watkins, however, he admitted having had a three-year personal relationship with the woman.
Watkins is identified as Reporter #2 in the indictment. It says Wolfe insisted that he never disclosed classified information to her, or any non-public information he learned as a Senate intelligence staffer.
Years worth of Watkins’ email and phone records were swept up as part of the investigation, marking the first known time the Trump administration has targeted a reporter’s data.
The leak investigation appears to be focused on an April 3, 2017, article that Watkins wrote before she joined the Times, about how Buzzfeed learned that Russian spies had approached Trump adviser Carter Page.
The story identifies Page as Male-1, and the indictment also describes extensive contact Wolfe had with reporters about a Male-1.
“Wolfe used his personal cell phone, his SSCI-issued electronic mail account, and anonymizing messaging applications, including Signal and WhatsApp, to exchange electronic communications with reporters,” the indictment says, using an abbreviation for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
According to the indictment, Wolfe and Watkins “exchanged tens of thousands of electronic communications, often including daily texts and phone calls, and they frequently met in person at a variety of locations.”
Prosecutors say Wolfe and Watkins had extensive contacts both before and after the story was published. In December, Wolfe sent Watkins a text message lauding her tenacity to “chase down a good story.”
“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,” he wrote.
Although The New York Times said it only learned Thursday about the seizure of Wolfe’s records, the Department of Justice notified Watkins in February through a national-security letter.
The Times broke their story just before the Department of Justice made Wolfe’s indictment public. According to the Times, Watkins said that Wolfe did not provide her with classified information during their relationship. Watkins had disclosed her relationship with Wolfe to editors at Buzzfeed News, Politico and at the Times, the article maintains.
The indictment says Wolfe also engaged in extensive contacts with someone identified as Reporter #3, who published information about Page after Wolfe provided the reporter with Page’s contact information on Oct. 17.
After the story ran Wolfe texted the reporter: “Good job!” adding “I’m glad you got the scoop.”
Wolfe also reportedly told the reporter on Oct. 24 that Page would testify before the committee that week. The reporter again contacted Page to confirm his appearance, after which Page complained to the committee that details about his appearance were leaked to the press.
Early Friday morning Page tweeted out a link to an Oct. 27 MSNBC story about one of his meetings with the Senate Intelligence Committee.
“It had long been a mystery to me how @MSNBC always miraculously knew about / was well staked-out for my Hart Senate Office Building visits, despite my best effort attempts to stay undercover,” he wrote. “I guess all these things are now becoming more understandable.”
Wolfe also offered to serve as an anonymous source for someone identified in the indictment as Reporter #4.
Because of his residence in Ellicott City, Maryland, Wolfe made his first court appearance this afternoon in Baltimore. Wolfe conferred quietly with his attorney before U.S. Magistrate J. Mark Coulson appeared and read the charges, which carry a maximum penalty of five years each.
Coulson allowed Wolfe to leave on personal recognizance but barred the defendant from traveling outside the District of Columbia and Maryland.
Though Wolfe told the court he wanted an attorney appointed for him, Coulson said he wanted Wolfe to undergo a financial-means test and may require him to pay at least part of the cost of his representation.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Phil Selden laid out additional conditions for pretrial release, including that Wolfe not disclose any classified information and that he not seek any employment requiring the use of his security clearance. Coulson agreed to these, and Wolfe did not object.
The rest of his case will be handled in Washington, D.C., where it has been assigned to U.S. District Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson. U.S. Magistrate Robin Meriweather will preside over Wolfe’s first D.C. hearing, scheduled for Tuesday at 1:45.
On Monday, Wolfe must report to the FBI’s D.C. field office for processing at 9 a.m. Wolfe told Coulson he understood that the consequences will be dire if he violates any of the terms of his release or if he is charged with any other crimes, such as tampering with witnesses.
Courthouse News reporter Edward Ericson contributed to this story.