Former Senate Intel Staffer Gets Two Months For Leak Probe Lies


During a tense, emotional hearing on Dec. 20, a federal judge rejected conflicting government recommendations and ordered a two-month jail sentence for a former longtime U.S. Senate staff member for lying to FBI agents investigating leaks of confidential information to journalists.

Former Senate Intelligence Commission staff member James A. Wolfe, 58, received the sentence in Washington, DC’s federal court after U.S. District Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson rejected the Justice Department’s unusual request for greatly increased punishment and an even more unusual plea for leniency by top leaders of the Senate committee.

james wolfe cspanThe case’s drama included the defendant’s tearful apologies for wrongdoing that cost him both his job and threatened his marriage because the FBI exposed how Wolfe, shown in a file photo from an appearance on C-SPAN discussing security issues, had been having an affair with a young reporter.

Wider implications included prosecutors’ claims that Wolfe’s actions endangered national security and the judge’s detailed analysis of why the deserved jail time but far less than prosecutors had been seeking.

The judge, shown below right in a file photo, rejected the government’s theory that Wolfe, the Senate committee’s director of security for three decades, endangered national security in a way that deserved a vast elevation of his culpability under federal sentencing guidelines.

ketanji brown jacksonShe said that she would sentence him purely on the charge of lying in his plea agreement, but then said that he deserved jail time in part because he had violated his position of responsibility.

This reporter covered in person the sentencing and also the sentencing hearing two days previously in a nearby courtroom for former Trump National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, who also had pleaded guilty to lying to FBI agents.

Wolfe’s attorneys had cited as examples of leniency Flynn’s case, and the probation terms for former Clinton National Security advisor Sandy Berger (for removing classified documents from the National Archives) and for former Obama CIA Director David Petraeus (for disclosure of classified information to his lover and biographer Paula Broadwell).

emmet sullivan 2012The judge noted, however, that Berger and Petraeus had pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges, unlike Wolfe.

Flynn’s sentencing has been postponed until March after U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan, left, surprised litigants and commentators alike by denouncing Flynn.

Sullivan expressed doubt that Flynn should avoid jail time as prosecutors had recommended because of Flynn's extraordinary cooperation with the probe of Special Counsel Robert Mueller into the Trump administration.

Other Parallels

Earlier this year, Dutch attorney Alex van der Zwaan received a 30-day sentence and former Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos received 14 days for lying to the FBI during the Mueller probe. 

Painful Proceeding

In Thursday's proceeding:

“I am beyond embarrassed, beyond humiliated,” Wolfe told Jackson, who handed down from the bench a box of tissues as the defendant choked up repeatedly in describing his crime and its circumstances.

These included a three-year relationship with reporter Ali Watkins, who later became a reporter for the New York Times after her relationship ended with the married Wolfe. The Times demoted her after an investigation.

fbi logo“I compounded the lapse in judgment by sharing information with reporters after that relationship ended,” Wolfe said, as reported by a Washington Post account excerpted below. “I lied to protect my wife, my sons, and selfishly I lied to protect myself and my job.”

The requirements of Wolfe's job forbade discussions with reporters, authorities said. He pleaded guilty to a disclosure with a different reporter than Watkins. Wolfe said his disclosure involved confidential logistics about a committee witness but not classified information.

Wolfe's wife and one of his sons were present in the courtroom. The judge acknowledged that their support helped show the defendant's positive attributes, as did his Army service, work with the Senate and civic volunteer service. 

But she said that lying to FBI agents is a serious crime and that others who have done so, including two defendants in the Mueller probe, have recently received brief jail terms despite no previous record.

She said that fairness requires that Wolfe should also. She imposed also a $7,500 fine, with 80 hours of community service. 

She concluded the two-hour sentencing hearing by stating, "Mr. Wolfe, good luck."

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Related News Coverage

Dec. 20

washington post logoWashington Post, Ex-Senate Intelligence Committee aide sentenced to two months in leak probe, Spencer S. Hsu and Rachel Weiner, Dec. 20, 2018. A longtime aide to the Senate Intelligence Committee was sentenced Thursday to two months in prison for lying to FBI agents about his contact with reporters during a federal leak investigation, a punishment imposed after pleas for leniency by the committee’s chairman and two top-ranking members.

James A. Wolfe, 58, pleaded guilty in October to one count of lying about using encrypted messaging in October 2017 to tell a journalist identified in court filings only as “Reporter #3” about a subpoena issued by the committee. He also admitted to lying about speaking with three other reporters.

For three decades, he was the Senate committee’s director of security, whose duties included overseeing the handling of secret and top-secret information turned over to the panel by the intelligence community for oversight purposes.

Wolfe had asked for probation.

“We may well be living in an era of alternative facts, but if you propagate falsehoods to government investigators. . .you will be taken seriously and treated seriously, because you are committing a serious federal crime,” Jackson said. “As a government official who worked specifically in the area of information security, you understood the importance of the FBI’s investigation.”

Prosecutors dismissed two counts of making false statements related to other interactions with reporters, but had asked the judge to impose a tougher sentence.

richard burr oChairman Richard Burr (R-N.C., shown at left), Vice Chairman Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) and former vice chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) had joined Wolfe’s probation request, citing his years with the committee and 10 years in the Army and reserves in a letter to the judge.

“We do not believe there is any public utility in depriving him of his freedom,” they wrote.

The government in June alleged that Wolfe, who had worked for the Senate committee from 1987 until May, lied to FBI agents in December 2017 about repeated contact with four reporters, which included the use of encrypted messaging applications. He was also accused of lying about giving two reporters nonpublic information about matters before the committee.

Prosecutors said the FBI opened the criminal investigation in April 2017 following several leaked news articles — including that the FBI had obtained a secret court order in October 2016 to monitor the communications of Carter Page, a former foreign policy adviser to presidential candidate Donald Trump, in an investigation of possible links between the campaign and Russia.

Dec. 19

 michael flynn state department Custom

Former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn delivers remarks in early 2016 before his resignation and federal indictment.

washington post logoWashington Post, Flynn’s sentencing delayed; judge tells ex-Trump adviser, ‘Arguably, you sold your country out,’ Spencer S. Hsu, Matt emmet sullivan 2012Zapotosky and Carol D. Leonnig​, Dec. 19, 2018 (print edition). The judge said he could not guarantee he would spare Michael Flynn from prison — a stunning development as it had appeared that President Trump's former national security adviser would be able to avoid time behind bars for lying to the FBI. Related story: The Fix: Trump backers just had their anti-Mueller hopes dashed.

A federal judge on Tuesday postponed the sentencing for Michael Flynn after he lambasted President Trump’s former national security adviser for trying to undermine his own country and said he could not guarantee he would spare Flynn from prison.

The stunning development means that Flynn will have to be sentenced at a later date, when he can possibly convince a judge more thoroughly of how his cooperation has benefited law enforcement.

Flynn’s attorneys asked for the delay after U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan (above right) accused Flynn of acting as “an unregistered agent of a foreign country, while serving as the national security adviser to the president of the United States” — an allegation he later walked back. Sullivan granted the request and asked for a status report in 90 days, though he said he was “not making any promises” that he would view the matter differently in three months.

After reviewing some of the allegations against Flynn, including that he worked to advance the interests of the Turkish government in the United States during the 2016 presidential campaign, the judge pointed to an American flag behind him in the courtroom and said heatedly, “Arguably, that undermines everything this flag over here stands for. Arguably you sold your country out.

“The court’s going to consider that,” the judge said. “I cannot assure you, if you proceed today, you will not receive a sentence of incarceration.”

Dec. 18

Palmer Report, Analysis, Commentary: “You sold your country out” -- sentencing judge rips Michael Flynn to pieces, Bill Palmer, Dec. 18, 2018. 
After a lengthy court hearing today, Judge Emmet Sullivan offered Michael Flynn the opportunity to further delay his sentencing on the chance that his ongoing cooperation might result in a more lenient sentence, and Flynn took him up on it. But the story ended up being what Flynn and the judge said to each other before agreeing to the delay.

bill palmer report logo headerThe remarkable fireworks came in part thanks to Michael Flynn’s decision to falsely accuse the FBI of having treated him maliciously. Flynn seemed to think the judge might be tempted to send him to prison even after Robert Mueller recommended no prison time, and Flynn was right. But the judge had no interest in Flynn’s attacks on the FBI, and instead forced Flynn to admit in court that the FBI hadn’t done anything wrong. Then came the historic fireworks.

michael flynn prison palmer graphicThe judge asked Mueller’s team if Flynn [shown in a Palmer Report graphic] would have been charged in yesteday’s indictments involving Turkey if he hadn’t cut a deal. The answer was yes. The judge then said to Flynn, “you arguably sold your country out!” The judge then asked Mueller’s team if treason charges could have been applied to Flynn.

This led to a recess, and afterward, the judge made clear that he wasn’t accusing Michael Flynn of treason, he was just asking the question. Nonetheless, that word is now in the public dialogue. We’ll see what happens to Flynn when he’s sentenced later. But the real story is that Donald Trump’s top guy Flynn sold out America – and if Trump knew about it, he’s guilty of whatever Flynn is guilty of.

washington post logomichael flynn microphoneWashington Post, Trump wishes Michael Flynn ‘good luck’ in court as former national security adviser faces sentencing, Matt Zapotosky and Spencer S. Hsu​, Dec. 18, 2018. Today’s court proceeding for Flynn (right), who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his dealings with a Russian ambassador, could be complicated by his attorneys’ recent suggestion that he was duped by law enforcement.

Dec. 14

ny times logoNew York Times, Mueller Rejects Flynn’s Attempt to Portray Himself as Victim of the F.B.I., Adam Goldman, Dec. 14, 2018. The special counsel’s office rejected on Friday a suggestion from Michael T. Flynn, President Trump’s former national security adviser, that he had been tricked into lying last year to F.B.I. agents investigating Russia’s election interference and ties to Trump associates.

sergey kislyak 2016 wProsecutors laid out a pattern of lies by Mr. Flynn to Vice President Mike Pence, senior White House aides, federal investigators and the news media in the weeks before and after the presidential inauguration as he scrambled to obscure the truth about his communications during the presidential transition with Sergey I. Kislyak, right, the Russian ambassador to the United States at the time.

Neither his lawyers nor Mr. Flynn, the former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, have explained why he lied to the F.B.I., a felony that he pleaded guilty to a year ago. But in a memo this week seeking leniency, his lawyers revealed details from the interview that stoked an unfounded theory that Mr. Flynn’s demeanor during questioning indicated that he did not understand that he was being formally investigated. They also blamed the F.B.I. for not informing Mr. Flynn ahead of time that lying to agents is illegal — an argument that prosecutors repudiated.

“A sitting national security adviser, former head of an intelligence agency, retired lieutenant general and 33-year veteran of the armed forces knows he should not lie to federal agents,” prosecutors for the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, wrote in court papers. “He does not need to be warned it is a crime to lie to federal agents to know the importance of telling them the truth.”

Dec. 5

Washington Times, Papadopoulos, van der Zwaan sentencing gives Mueller probe insight, Jeff Mordock, Dec. 5, 2018. Three individuals who pleaded guilty to lying to FBI agents in the probe into Russian meddling in the 2016 election could spend a paltry 44 days in prison.

Dutch attorney Alex van der Zwaan received a 30-day sentence, and former Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos is serving 14 days. On Tuesday, special counsel Robert Mueller recommended that former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn receive no prison time when he is sentenced this month.

It’s far from the five-year maximum penalty that lying to the FBI carries — and analysts said it provides a look into Mr. Mueller’s goals as he nears completion of his probe.

“These are people who, at the beginning of the investigation, did not have major roles, but they had information,” said Nick Akerman, a former assistant special prosecutor in the Watergate scandal. “Flynn obviously had much more information, and his deal took that into account.”

The Flynn recommendation came as part of a new court filing hinting at the former Trump figure’s cooperation on several investigations. While most of the details were redacted, the 13 pages left all sides speculating on Mr. Mueller’s endgame.

July 3

washington post logoWashington Post, New York Times reassigns reporter who dated Senate intelligence staffer at center of FBI probe, Paul Farhi, July 3, 2018. The New York Times demoted a reporter who acknowledged a romantic relationship with a Senate staffer who is suspected of leaking information to journalists.

June 8james wolf ali watkins

Former Senate Intelligence Committee staffer James Wolfe and New York Times reporter Ali Watkins (file photos)

ny times logoNew York Times, Times Reporter’s Records Are Seized in Justice Dept. Inquiry, Adam Goldman, Nicholas Fandos and Katie Benner, June 8, 2017 (print edition). Prosecutors seized phone and email records as part of an investigation into leaks by a former Senate aide. It was the first known use of such an aggressive tactic under President Trump.

Justice Department log circularFederal law enforcement officials secretly seized years’ worth of a New York Times reporter’s phone and email records this year in an investigation of classified information leaks. It was the first known instance of the Justice Department going after a reporter’s data under President Trump.

The seizure — disclosed in a letter to the reporter, Ali Watkins — suggested that prosecutors under the Trump administration will continue the aggressive tactics employed under President Barack Obama.

Mr. Trump has complained bitterly about leaks and demanded that law enforcement officials seek criminal charges against government officials involved in illegal and sometimes embarrassing disclosures of national security secrets.

Investigators sought Ms. Watkins’s information as part of an inquiry into whether James A. Wolfe, the Senate Intelligence Committee’s former director of security, disclosed classified secrets to reporters. F.B.I. agents approached Ms. Watkins about a previous three-year romantic relationship she had with Mr. Wolfe, saying they were investigating unauthorized leaks. The two are shown above in file photos.

News media advocates consider the idea of mining a journalist’s records for sources to be an intrusion on First Amendment freedoms, and prosecutors acknowledge it is one of the most delicate steps the Justice Department can take. “Freedom of the press is a cornerstone of democracy, and communications between journalists and their sources demand protection,” said Eileen Murphy, a Times spokeswoman.

washington post logoWashington Post, Young reporter in leak investigation enjoyed meteoric rise in Washington journalism, Sarah Ellison and Paul Farhi, June 8, 2018. The first known leak investigation of the Trump administration has put under scrutiny a 20-something New York Times reporter, who enjoyed a meteoric rise through Washington’s journalism ranks that began while she was still in college.

james wolfe cspanTimes reporter Ali Watkins hasn’t been charged in the Justice Department’s investigation of the leak of classified information from the Senate Intelligence Committee. But the revelation late Thursday that the FBI had secretly seized years’ worth of Watkins’ phone and email records, dating back to when she was a student at Temple University, raised questions about her relationship with the man at the center of the investigation.

Watkins’ romantic involvement with former intelligence committee aide James A. Wolfe (shown during a C-SPAN appearance) — who was indicted on Thursday — focused attention on her reporting for such news organizations as McClatchy’s Washington bureau, BuzzFeed and Politico.


washington post logoWashington Post, Broadwell case highlights e-mail as investigative tool, Greg Miller and Ellen Nakashima, Nov. 17, 2012.  A criminal inquiry into e-mail harassment morphed into a national security probe of whether CIA Director David H. Petraeus and the secrets he guarded were at risk.

After uncovering an extramarital affair, investigators shifted to the question of whether Petraeus was guilty of a security breach. When none of those paths bore results, investigators settled on the single target they are scrutinizing now: Paula Broadwell, the retired general’s biographer and mistress, and what she was doing with a cache of classified but apparently inconsequential files. On Capitol Hill, the case has drawn references to the era of J. Edgar Hoover, the founding director of the FBI, who was notorious for digging up dirt on Washington’s elite long before the invention of e-mail and the Internet.

Associated Press, Petraeus Investigation: CIA Looking Into Conduct Of Ex-Chief After Affair, Kimberly Dozier, Nov. 15, 2012. The CIA is opening an "exploratory" investigation into the general conduct of ex-CIA director David Petraeus, who resigned last week after acknowledging an affair. CIA spokesman Preston Golson says the investigation by the CIA's inspector general "doesn't presuppose any particular outcome."

Petraeus biographer and girlfriend Paula Broadwell was found to have classified information in her possession, apparently from her time researching Petraeus' career.