by Chuck Ross
Former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page was the primary target of a Senate Select Intelligence Committee (SSIC) staffer indicted for lying about his contacts with reporters, according to an indictment released on Thursday.
James Wolfe, the former director of security for the SSIC panel, was in contact with at least three reporters at around the time they published articles about Page, an energy consultant who is a central player in the investigations into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian government.
Wolfe, 57, is charged with lying to the FBI during a Dec. 15, 2017 interview about whether he knew the journalists and had contact with them on certain dates. In one case, Wolfe denied knowing a reporter with whom he had been in a romantic relationship for four years. He is also charged with lying about giving that reporter, Ali Watkins, information about Page.
The indictment cites one message that Wolfe wrote in December to Watkins, a former BuzzFeed reporter who now works for The New York Times.
“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 wrote to Watkins, whom he dated from December 2013 to December 2017.
It is not clear why Wolfe focused his alleged leaking on Page.
Wolfe, who was arrested on Thursday, could not be reached for comment. Page declined comment for this article because he said he is traveling. But he blasted the leak revelations on Twitter, writing: “Too bad misleading [SSIC] leaks brought more terror threats.”
Wolfe has worked for both Democrats and Republicans in his 29-year career. As the director of security for the committee, he was tasked with handling documents and contacting committee witnesses. That put him in frequent contact with Page, who was subpoenaed by the SSIC panel in October.
Wolfe handled court documents that ended up being cited in an April 3, 2017 BuzzFeed article written by Watkins that identified Page as “Male-1” in court filings in a Russian spy ring case, according to the indictment. The Senate panel received the documents from an executive branch agency on March 17, 2017, the indictment stated.
That same day, Wolfe exchanged 82 text messages with Watkins on the day the committee received the Page documents. The pair had 124 electronic communications the day the BuzzFeed article was published.
The Department of Justice (DOJ) seized Watkins’s email and phone records as part of an investigation into the Wolfe leaks. She has not been accused of wrongdoing in the case and has denied receiving classified information from Wolfe.
Watkins’s article marked a crucial development in the coverage of Page, who surged to notoriety in January 2017 when BuzzFeed published the unverified Steele dossier. The 35-page document accuses Page of being the Trump campaign’s conduit to the Kremlin. Page has vehemently denied the allegation, and BuzzFeed has not produced any evidence supporting it.
Watkins’s piece revealed for the first time that Russian agents reached out to Page in 2013 as part of an alleged recruitment attempt. Page was interviewed by the FBI about contacts he had with a Russian intelligence operative named Victor Podobnyy.
Podobnyy was charged alongside two other Russian nationals with acting as an unregistered foreign agent of Russia. Page met Podobnyy at an energy conference in January 2013 and later provided him with academic papers he wrote about the energy business. Page has denied any impropriety and was not accused of any wrongdoing, but his association with the case has stoked the narrative that he was in contact with Kremlin operatives.
Wolfe was also in contact with a reporter ahead of an Oct. 17, 2017 report about a subpoena the SSIC panel issued for Page. And on Oct. 24, 2017 he messaged the reporter, who is identified as female, that Page would testify in a closed hearing “this week.”
Page emailed the committee after being contacted by the reporter to complain about leaks from the panel.
After the article about Page’s subpoena was published, Wolfe messaged the reporter who wrote that story, saying “I’m glad you got the scoop.”
“Thank you,” the reporter wrote. “[Page] isn’t pleased, but wouldn’t deny that the subpoena was served.”
The indictment also hinted Wolfe gave out information about Page to other reporters.
Wolfe was asked whether he knew a reporter who wrote an article about Page during his Dec. 15, 2017 FBI interview. Wolfe initially denied having contact with the reporter, but the FBI discovered he talked to the journalist at least five times between December 2015 and June 2017.
That reporter’s article, which was written with two colleagues, is not identified in the indictment. The date of the article and other information about it is conspicuously absent from the court filings.
Watkins has drawn sympathy because of the DOJ’s seizure of her phone and email records. Investigators seized records from email accounts the reporter used while in college, TheNYT reported. While studying at Temple University, Watkins helped write an article for McClatchy about CIA surveillance activities against the SSIC.
The article was published in March 2014, several months after Watkins and Wolfe began their relationship.
Watkins’s current and former colleagues defended her against what they said are overly aggressive tactics from the DOJ.
“Freedom of the press is a cornerstone of democracy, and communications between journalists and their sources demand protection,” said TheNYT spokeswoman Eileen Murphy.
Ben Smith, the editor at BuzzFeed, defended Watkins’s reporting on Carter Page’s “Male-1” revelation.
“I am baffled that the FBI and Justice Department are going to these dangerous lengths over a story that points to public court documents that describe Russian spies approaching a Trump adviser, who himself is quoted confirming his role in the episode,” Smith told The Daily Caller News Foundation.
He declined comment on Watkins’s sourcing “in the middle of an unjustifiable leak hunt.” He did not address whether it was proper for Watkins to have a relationship with a Senate staffer on a committee she was covering. Watkins told BuzzFeed about her relationship with Wolfe, according to The NYT.
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Chuck Ross is a reporter at Daily Caller News Foundation. Follow Chuck on Twitter.