WASHINGTON (CN) – Indicted last week as part of an investigation of leaks on Capitol Hill, former Senate intelligence committee staffer James Wolfe pleaded not guilty Wednesday to a three-count indictment.
Wolfe, 57, is charged with lying to the FBI about his contacts with four journalists during his 29-year tenure as director of security for the Senate intelligence committee, which has been investigating Russia’s interference in the 2016 election.
Though he was tasked with managing classified material provided to the committee, he is not charged with leaking any of that material to reporters.
Defense attorneys Preston Burton and Benjamin Klubes addressed this distinction during his arraignment this afternoon before U.S. Magistrate Deborah Robinson.
Burton said statements made by Department of Justice officials created misleading “atmospherics” that insinuated Wolfe had compromised classified information.
The Buckley Sandler attorney also noted that President Donald Trump has weighed in on Wolfe’s case with misleading statements of his own.
Trump had called Wolfe “a very important leaker” on Friday and said his arrest “could be a terrific thing.”
Burton told the court he will seek a gag order to bar federal officials from speaking about the case.
Klubes elaborated on this after the hearing.
“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 outside court.
Klubes called Wolfe’s prosecution “unfair and unjustified.”
“There is absolutely no allegation in this case that Mr. Wolfe leaked classified information,” Klubes said. “This prosecution raises very substantial First Amendment and freedom of the press issues that will be addressed in court.”
Wolfe, who retired from the Senate intelligence committee last month, appeared in court Wednesday afternoon wearing a dark gray suit, a white shirt and a red tie. When Judge Robinson asked Burton for Wolfe’s pleas, he responded “not guilty.”
The Department of Justice unsealed the indictment against Wolfe on June 8. According to the charges, Wolfe lied about his relationships with journalists when FBI agents asked about news stories that contained classified information given to the Senate intelligence committee by the executive branch.
Those stories reportedly pertain to the committee’s investigation of former Trump adviser Carter Page, whom was subpoenaed to appear before the committee during its probe of Russian election interference.
One of the reporters whom Wolfe lied about interacting with is New York Times reporter Ali Watkins. The pair had a three-year relationship.
Watkins is not named in the indictment, but the Times has since identified her as one of the journalists referenced. According to the Times, Watkins disclosed the relationship to the paper and said Wolfe did not provide her with classified information.
As part of its leak investigation the Department of Justice swept up years worth of her email and phone records, notifying her by national security letter in February. The revelation has since prompted criticism from free-press advocates.
On Tuesday The Washington Post reported that U.S. Customs and Border Protection launched an inquiry of one of its agents who had requested a meeting with Watkins about her sources, telling her the Trump administration wanted to identify journalists’ anonymous sources to stop classified leaks.
Watkins worked at Politico at the time, but according to the report, the agent confronted Watkins with accurate details about her interactions with Wolfe, including trips the two took together overseas.
On Wednesday, Wolfe agreed that he won’t travel outside the Washington, D.C., Maryland and northern Virginia without the court’s permission, as part of the conditions of his release. He also agreed not to disclose classified information to unauthorized persons, or apply for a job that would give him access to classified material.
He further agreed not to possess a firearm or live in a house with one, and will check in with pretrial services by phone once a week.
He will make his next court appearance on June 19 at 11 a.m. in Washington, D.C.