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Ex-Senate aide James Wolfe, accused of lying, goes before judge

He will be booked at FBI headquarters next week and then appear before a federal magistrate.
Image: Wolfe escorts a witness into Senate Intelligence Committee offices on Capitol Hill in Washington
James Wolfe on Capitol Hill in 2017.Jonathan Ernst / Reuters file

BALTIMORE — The former Senate Intelligence Committee staffer accused of lying to FBI agents about his contacts with reporters was released from custody Friday after a brief court proceeding.

James A. Wolfe, 58, who was arrested Thursday at his Maryland home, must appear at FBI headquarters on Monday for booking. He will then have an initial appearance in federal court in Washington on Tuesday.

Wolfe, who retired in May, was indicted 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.

He was the longtime security director for the committee, which has been focused for the last 18 months on an investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Wolfe escorted witnesses who testified before the committee in connection with the Russia probe before he was placed on leave in December.

President Donald Trump applauded his arrest, saying, "I'm a very big believer in freedom of the press, but I'm also a believer that you cannot leak classified information."

Wolfe is actually not charged with leaking classified information. He is charged only with lying to the FBI when he denied having contact with certain reporters.

The indictment suggests that the FBI investigation was launched because classified information showed up in an article by one of the reporters, but it does not explicitly say that he gave any reporter classified information.

As the charges against Wolfe were announced, The New York Times reported that the Justice Department has seized the telephone and electronic communications of reporter Ali Watkins in February.

FBI 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 newspaper said. Watkins declined to comment.

According to the indictment, Wolfe maintained a classified document provided to the Senate committee that involved an individual identified as "Male 1." It says he exchanged 82 text messages with a reporter who on April 3 had an article published that revealed the identity of Male 1.

On April 3, a story by Watkins, then a reporter for BuzzFeed, revealed that former Trump campaign foreign policy adviser Carter Page "met with and passed documents to a Russian intelligence operative" in 2013.

The Times denounced the seizure of Watkins' material, saying it "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."

The Radio Television Digital News Association also blasted the move.

"It appears General Sessions and his Justice Department have declared open season on journalists in their attempts to stop leaks of sensitive information," RTDNA Executive Director Dan Shelley said.

"Such witch hunts not only make it more difficult for journalists to do their jobs; more important, they deprive the public of information it has a right — and need — to know."

Contacted by NBC News on Wednesday night, Wolfe denied he had been contacted by federal law enforcement officials. Reached again Thursday night, he declined to comment.