WASHINGTON — James A. Wolfe, the former Senate Intelligence Committee security director, pleaded not guilty Wednesday to federal charges that he repeatedly lied to FBI agents about his contact with reporters during an investigation into alleged unauthorized disclosures of classified information.
Within minutes of Wolfe’s plea here, his attorneys said they would seek a gag order barring President Donald Trump and his administration from making public comments on Twitter or in any other medium that could prejudice a criminal trial.
Speaking to reporters outside the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, Wolfe attorney Benjamin Klubes said: “We’re going to vigorously defend Mr. Wolfe from this unfair and unjustified prosecution. We will file a motion seeking an order from the court prohibiting the government, including all levels — that includes President Trump — from making improper and prejudicial statements regarding the case.”
In a statement, Wolfe’s attorneys said he had been “entrusted with the government’s most important classified secrets while working as the Director of Security for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence for almost 30 years. Mr. Wolfe never breached that trust.”
Wolfe, 57, was arrested at his Ellicott City, Md., home last week. Prosecutors alleged in an indictment that he had made false statements last year to FBI agents about providing reporters sensitive information about the Intelligence Committee’s work. Prosecutors did not allege Wolfe illegally disclosed national security secrets.
On Thursday, The New York Times identified one of the reporters as Times national law enforcement correspondent Ali Watkins, 26, who the newspaper said had had a romantic relationship with Wolfe for three years but it has ended. The Times said prosecutors had seized years’ worth of Watkins’ email and phone records, though all while she covered national security and law enforcement for other publications and before she joined the Times in December.
Watkins had received a letter from the Justice Department in February notifying her that the department had seized her records, but she did not inform the paper until last week, heeding the advice of her lawyer, the Times reported.
The Times said she informed its editors of her relationship with Wolfe after the newspaper hired her.
The newspaper said in an a lengthy article Tuesday that an associate editor who helps manage personnel and the head of the paper’s labor department would lead an investigation into the work history of Watkins, including “the nature of her relationship with Mr. Wolfe, and what she disclosed about it to her prior employers.”
Neither Watkins nor her attorney could be reached for comment.
Times spokeswoman Eileen Murphy said Watkins is taking off for a vacation she had previously planned.
Watkins wrote numerous stories about the Intelligence Committee for the McClatchy Co.’s Washington bureau, Politico, BuzzFeed News and The Huffington Post. The Times reported that she had told editors at the paper of the relationship but said she never received information for stories from him while in the relationship.
President Donald Trump on Friday praised Wolfe’s arrest, calling him a “very important leaker” and saying his arrest “could be a terrific thing.”
“I’m a big, big believer in freedom of the press,” Trump told reporters at the White House. “But I’m also a believer in classified information. It has to remain classified. … You cannot leak classified information. At the same time, we need freedom of the press. But you cannot leak.”
Press advocacy groups, however, called the seizure of a reporter’s email and phone records an attack on freedom of the press, endangering journalists’ ability to gather from government officials information in the public interest.