James Wolfe, the director of security for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence for over 30 years, was charged with three counts of making false statements to investigators about his contacts with four reporters.
It spells the first known case of a journalist's records being seized under the Donald Trump administration, which is engaged in a crackdown on leakers.
According to the DOJ, Wolfe, security director for almost 30 years, had all the information classified "secret" and "top secret" provided by the Executive Branch, including the U.S. Intelligence Community, to the SSCI. Late previous year, Sessions said the department had 27 open leak investigations - dwarfing what had also been a high number of leak probes pursued by the Obama administration. Rather, she was establishing relationships with people who might serve as sources for stories.
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LUCAS: Well, in an indictment unsealed last night, the government says that Wolfe was interviewed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation back in December. Wolfe said that he did not. I don't see any exceptions in the [attorney general] guidelines for situations where the reporter has a multidimensional relationship with her source.
Watkins did not respond to requests for comment.
Prosecutors allege Wolfe also had contact with three other journalists, referred to only as Reporter #1, Reporter #3, and Reporter #4 in the indictment. The contacts were revealed to the Senate committee by law enforcement officials in classified documents, according to the indictment, which was unsealed late Thursday after his arrest. The Times said that Watkins had a relationship with Wolfe before she joined the newspaper. That was part of a leak investigation back then.
New York Times spokeswoman Eileen Murphy said in a statement, "Freedom of the press is a cornerstone of democracy and we believe that communications between journalists and their sources demand protection". He was responsible for receiving, maintaining and managing classified material that passed between the White House and Senate lawmakers.
Watkins' attorney, Mark MacDougall, had described the seizure as "disconcerting".
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BuzzFeed editor Ben Smith said on Twitter that his online publication was "deeply troubled by what looks like a case of law enforcement interfering with a reporter's constitutional right to gather information about her own government". "The way the indictment is written is clearly aimed at launching a disgusting smear of a reporter, and it has had that effect", he said.
"This news is disappointing.however, we trust the justice system to act appropriately and ensure due process as this case unfolds".
Watkins has had a stunning rise through the ranks of Washington news organizations and developed a track record of breaking stories. Her name and two other McClatchy reporters are listed on the Pulitzer web site.
Current and former colleagues of Watkins defended her work, however. The senators said they were informed of the investigation late-last year and that the committee has been cooperating with the FBI and the Department of Justice. Per federal statute, agents must make "all reasonable attempts to obtain the information from alternative, non-media sources".
"We fear (this action) could be an opening salvo in an ongoing battle over reporters' ability to protect their sources", Ellerbeck said in a statement. It is unclear whether the government exhausted other options before seizing Watkins' phone and email records. Based on an online search it appears that NBC first reported the subpoena under the bylines of two reporters. Finally, there is a question whether Watkins was notified in a timely way of the surveillance.
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