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Top Senate staffer arrested in leak probe; NYT reporter's records are seized

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Top Senate staffer arrested in leak probe; NYT reporter's records are seized

Image: James A. Wolfe
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WASHINGTON — A longtime staffer for the Senate Intelligence Committee has been arrested on charges of lying to investigators probing the potential leaking of classified information, the Justice Department announced Thursday night.

A federal grand jury indicted the staffer, James A. Wolfe, 58, on three counts of making false statements in December about contacts with reporters, including providing sensitive information related to the work of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which he served as security director for 29 years. He was arrested Thursday and is expected to appear in U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland on Friday.

His arrest comes just one day after the full Senate, with little advance notice, quietly authorized the committee to cooperate with the Justice Department regarding what was described only as an "investigation arising out of allegations of the unauthorized disclosure of information." The 15 members of the committee were briefed on the circumstances of the investigation Monday night.

Also Thursday evening, The New York Times reported that the telephone and electronic communications of one of its reporters were seized by the Justice Department in February as part of the investigation. The reporter, Ali Watkins, declined to comment.

The Times said F.B.I. agents approached Watkins about a previous three-year romantic relationship she had with Wolfe, asserting that Wolfe had helped her with articles while they were dating. But Watkins told the Times that Wolfe was not a source of classified information for her.

The Times said in a statement that the action by the Justice Department "will endanger reporters' ability to promise confidentiality to their sources and, ultimately, undermine the ability of a free press to shine a much needed light on government actions."

That Wolfe is charged with improperly handling sensitive committee material represents a major breach; the security director is the person entrusted to administer the strict confidentiality procedures for all member offices and committee staffers. The Senate Intelligence Committee, like its House counterpart, has been largely consumed for the past 18 months with an investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

"Mr. Wolfe's alleged conduct is a betrayal of the extraordinary public trust that had been placed in him," said Jessie K. Liu, U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia. "It is hoped that these charges will be a warning to those who might lie to law enforcement to the detriment of the United States."

During his tenure, Wolfe escorted every witness who testified before the committee in connection with the Russia probe.

Contacted by NBC News on Wednesday night about the unusual Senate vote, Wolfe denied that it involved any potential wrongdoing by him and that he had been contacted by federal law enforcement officials. Reached again Thursday night, Wolfe declined to comment.

Committee rules explicitly state that no senator or committee staff member "shall disclose, in whole or in part or by way of summary, the contents of any classified or committee sensitive papers, materials, briefings, testimony, or other information received by, or in the possession of, the committee to any other person," except as authorized by the committee. Sharing such materials with executive branch officials or members of the House Intelligence Committee is allowed but only under limited circumstances.

Anyone found in violation of the committee rules could be referred to the Senate Ethics Committee. Wolfe abruptly ended his long tenure with the committee last winter, and his arrest suggests that information he made available to committee witnesses may have influenced the separate Justice Department probe overseen by former FBI director Robert Mueller.

There have long been suspicions about the conduct of staffers on the House Intelligence Committee, including charges that they were improperly sharing committee materials with unauthorized people. The New York Times reported in March that the Senate committee leaders, Chairman Richard Burr, R-N.C., and Mark Warner, D-Va., concluded that it was a House Republican official or officials who leaked private text messages Warner sent to a Russia-connected lawyer, and raised the issue with Speaker Paul Ryan.

Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said Thursday that he wasn't aware of the circumstances around the Senate investigation. But, he said, "there certainly have been concerns raised by witnesses that there were improper contacts by committee staff, as well as concerns raised about coordination of committee members with the White House."