WASHINGTON — A former Senate Intelligence Committee aide was arrested on Thursday in an investigation of classified information leaks where prosecutors also secretly seized years’ worth of a New York Times reporter’s phone and email records.
The former aide, James A. Wolfe, 57, was charged with lying repeatedly to investigators about his contacts with three reporters. According to the authorities, Mr. Wolfe made false statements to the F.B.I. about providing two of them with sensitive information related to the committee’s work. He denied to investigators that he ever gave classified material to journalists, the indictment said.
Mr. Wolfe, the Intelligence Committee’s director of security, was slated to appear before a federal judge on Friday in Washington. Reached on Thursday evening before his arrest, Mr. Wolfe declined to comment.
Mr. Wolfe’s case led to the first known instance of the Justice Department going after a reporter’s data under President Trump. The seizure was disclosed in a letter to the Times reporter, Ali Watkins, who had been in a three-year relationship with Mr. Wolfe. The seizure suggested that prosecutors under the Trump administration will continue the aggressive tactics employed under President Barack Obama.
In his role with the committee, Mr. Wolfe was responsible for safeguarding classified and other sensitive information shared with lawmakers. He stopped performing committee work in December and retired in May.
Court documents describe Mr. Wolfe’s communications with four reporters — including Ms. Watkins — using encrypted messaging applications. It appeared that the F.B.I. was investigating how Ms. Watkins learned that Russian spies in 2013 had tried to recruit Carter Page, a former Trump foreign policy adviser. She published an article for BuzzFeed News on April 3, 2017, about the attempted recruitment of Mr. Page in which he confirmed the contacts.
F.B.I. agents initially approached Ms. Watkins about the relationship she had with Mr. Wolfe, saying they were investigating unauthorized leaks. The Justice Department told her in a letter sent in February that her records had been seized. The Times learned on Thursday of the letter, which came from the national security division of the United States attorney’s office in Washington.
In another case, the indictment said, Mr. Wolfe used an encrypted messaging app to alert another reporter in October 2017 that he had served Mr. Page with a subpoena to testify before the committee. The reporter, who was not named, published an article disclosing that Mr. Page had been compelled to appear. After it was published, Mr. Wolfe wrote to the journalist to say, “Good job!” and, “I’m glad you got the scoop,” according to court papers.
The same month, Mr. Wolfe reached out to a third reporter on the same unidentified app to offer to serve as an unnamed source, the documents said.
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.
Ms. Watkins’s personal lawyer, Mark J. MacDougall, said: “It’s always disconcerting when a journalist’s telephone records are obtained by the Justice Department — through a grand jury subpoena or other legal process. Whether it was really necessary here will depend on the nature of the investigation and the scope of any charges.”
A prosecutor notified Ms. Watkins on Feb. 13 that the Justice Department had years of customer records and subscriber information from telecommunications companies, including Google and Verizon, for two email accounts and a phone number of hers. Investigators did not obtain the content of the messages themselves.
The records covered years’ worth of Ms. Watkins’s communications before she joined The Times in December 2017 to cover federal law enforcement. During a seven-month period last year for which prosecutors sought additional phone records, she worked for BuzzFeed News and then Politico reporting on national security.
Shortly before she began working at The Times, Ms. Watkins was approached by the F.B.I. agents, who asserted that Mr. Wolfe had helped her with articles while they were dating. She did not answer their questions. Mr. Wolfe was not a source of classified information for Ms. Watkins during their relationship, she said. That same month, F.B.I. agents asked Mr. Wolfe about an article written by Ms. Watkins. He denied knowing the reporter’s sources.
During the same interview with the F.B.I., Mr. Wolfe denied knowing Ms. Watkins. But confronted with pictures of the two together, he admitted being in a “personal relationship” with her since 2014.
Ms. Watkins said she told editors at BuzzFeed News and Politico about it and continued to cover national security, including the committee’s work. Ben Smith, the editor in chief of BuzzFeed News, said in a statement, “We’re 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.”
A Politico spokesman, Brad Dayspring, said that the situation was “managed accordingly” after Ms. Watkins disclosed the matter, and that her beat was national security and law enforcement, not solely the committee, which other reporters primarily covered.
Ms. Watkins also told editors at The Times about the previous relationship when she was hired to cover federal law enforcement.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions said last year that the Justice Department was pursuing about three times as many leak investigations as were open at the end of the Obama administration. Under Mr. Obama, the Justice Department prosecuted more leak cases than all previous administrations combined.
“The attorney general has stated that investigations and prosecutions of unauthorized disclosure of controlled information are a priority of the Department of Justice,” John Demers, a top Justice Department official, said in a statement announcing Mr. Wolfe’s arrest.
The investigation came to light after the Senate Intelligence Committee made a cryptic announcement on Wednesday that it was cooperating with the Department of Justice “in a pending investigation.” Earlier, the Senate quietly and unanimously adopted a resolution to share committee information with the Justice Department “in connection with a pending investigation arising out of the unauthorized disclosure of information.”
Mr. Wolfe, a former Army intelligence analyst, worked for the committee in a nonpartisan capacity for nearly 30 years. He worked closely with both Democrats and Republicans on the committee.
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.
When law enforcement officials obtained journalists’ records during the Obama administration, members of Congress in both parties sounded alarms, and the moves touched off a firestorm among advocates for press freedom that helped prompt the Justice Department to rewrite its relevant guidelines.
Under Justice Department regulations, investigators must clear additional hurdles before they can seek business records that could reveal a reporter’s confidential sources, such as phone and email records. In particular, the rules require the government to have “made all reasonable attempts to obtain the information from alternative, non-media sources” before investigators may target a reporter’s information.
In addition, the rules generally require the Justice Department to notify reporters first to allow them to negotiate over the scope of their demand for information and potentially challenge it in court. The rules permit the attorney general to make an exception to that practice if he “determines that, for compelling reasons, such negotiations would pose a clear and substantial threat to the integrity of the investigation, risk grave harm to national security, or present an imminent risk of death or serious bodily harm.”
Top Justice Department officials must sign off on any attempt to gain access to a journalist’s communications records.
It is not clear whether investigators exhausted all of their avenues of information before confiscating Ms. Watkins’s information. She was not notified before they gained access to her information from the telecommunications companies. Among the records seized were those associated with her university email address from her undergraduate years.
“We intend to get to the bottom of these leaks. I think it has reached epidemic proportions,” Mr. Sessions said in November during testimony on Capitol Hill. “It cannot be allowed to continue, and we will do our best effort to ensure it does not continue.”
The Intelligence Committee is responsible for carrying out oversight of American intelligence agencies, including the F.B.I., the C.I.A. and the National Security Agency, and their secretive operations. It is one of the most tightly secured groups in Congress, with strict rules for lawmakers and the professional staff governing the circulation and release of sensitive, and often classified, information that passes before the committee.
As security director, Mr. Wolfe would have been responsible for ensuring that those rules were upheld. When the committee became a matter of intense interest as it undertook a bipartisan investigation of Russia’s election meddling, Mr. Wolfe played a more visible role ushering witnesses in and out of the committee’s secured office space.