In a recent court filing, the defendant’s attorneys begged for mercy. The offender—once a high-level government official assigned with protecting national security secrets—had pleaded guilty to one charge of making a false statement to the FBI in 2017.
Citing his modest upbringing, community involvement, and decorated military service, the defendant’s lawyers asked the judge only to impose a sentence of probation rather than jail time.
“This case has garnered a significant amount of media attention,” the attorneys wrote, “and plainly sends a message to the public that lying to federal agents—even when those lies were denials animated by a desire to conceal a personal failing—has profound consequences.”
The appeal was supported by letters written by powerful people, including top lawmakers on Capitol Hill, who attested to the man’s overall decency, claiming he had already suffered enough and how his “conduct is contradicted sharply by the character of the man that his family and community and country relied upon and loved and respected.”
No, that entreaty was not about Lt. General Michael Flynn; it was on behalf of James Wolfe, the former security chief for the Senate Intelligence Committee who was caught not just lying to FBI officials but illegally leaking classified information to journalists, including his 20-something girlfriend. Wolfe’s misconduct was far more egregious—and damaging—than the process crime committed by Flynn.
Late Thursday, a federal judge sentenced Wolfe to two months in jail for one count of lying to the FBI; the prosecution had asked for 24 months. After a tearful apology to the judge, Wolfe essentially escaped with a slap on the wrist. Outrageous.
Wolfe, 58, was a key player in the leaking strategy employed by anti-Trump bureaucrats to seed bogus Trump-Russia collusion stories in the news media during the administration’s early months. Entrusted with safekeeping the committee’s most secret documents, Wolfe was caught passing off the information to four reporters. One of the journalists, Ali Watkins, was at least 30 years his junior; their three-year affair began when she was a college intern working for a Washington, D.C. news organization.
During their affair, according to the government’s sentencing memo, Wolfe and Watkins “exchanged tens of thousands of telephone calls and electronic messages. Also . . . .[Watkins] published dozens of news articles on national security matters that contained sensitive information related to the [committee]” In one text intercepted by the FBI, Wolfe commended Watkins for her meteoric rise from college press intern to New York Times reporter in less than four years. (Her sex-for-scoops strategy worked like a charm, as I wrote after her story went public.)
When confronted by the FBI about the affair and the disclosure of classified information to the other reporters, Wolfe repeatedly lied both during a personal interview and on a questionnaire. The investigation into Wolfe’s activities was so critical and risky that “the FBI’s executive leadership took the extraordinary step of limiting its notification to two individuals—the Chair and Vice Chair of the [committee]. Had this delicate balance not been achieved, this situation could easily have resulted in the possible disruption of information flow—an untenable degradation of national security oversight.”
Sounds a little bit more consequential than a phone conversation about Russian sanctions, right?
But here is the real injustice: While it was clear by both the original indictment and the sentencing memo that Wolfe was responsible for disclosing details about the FISA warrant on Trump campaign aide Carter Page, he was not charged with that crime—a felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison.
The investigation into Wolfe began after the Washington Post published an explosive story in April 2017 confirming that the FBI had obtained a FISA order right before the election to spy on Page.
“There was probable cause to believe Page was acting as an agent of a foreign power, in this case Russia,” the Post reported. “This is the clearest evidence so far that the FBI had reason to believe during the 2016 presidential campaign that a Trump associate was in touch with Russian agents. Such contacts are now at the center of an investigation into whether the campaign coordinated with the Russian government to swing the election in Trump’s favor.” The information was given to the reporters “on the condition of anonymity because [the sources] were not authorized to discuss details of a counterintelligence probe.”
Wolfe lied to the FBI when he denied having any contact with three Post reporters: The sentencing memo confirms Wolfe spoke to Ellen Nakashima several times between late 2015 and mid-2017.
Prosecutors also note that Wolfe “received, maintained and managed” Page’s top-secret FISA application. On the same day it was transported to the Senate Intelligence Committee—March 17, 2017—he exchanged 82 text messages with Watkins and had a lengthy phone conversation with her.
The length of the FISA application? Eight-two pages.
While Watkins wrote a separate piece for Buzzfeed on April 3, 2017, quoting a “U.S. intelligence official” that also contained private information about Page, which Nakashima, Adam Entous, and Devlin Barrett would report in the Washington Post a week later. Barrett wrote another piece in June 2017 revealing the FBI had questioned Page.
Page’s FISA warrant was renewed three times; he has never been charged with a crime. But Page—a Naval Academy graduate and global energy financier—has suffered tremendous personal and professional damage because of the illegal leaks by Wolfe and others.
“This has been a long, torturous road, but I think the truth will start to come out a little bit,” he told me last summer.
Yes, the truth is coming out, and it’s a nasty, ugly truth. If you reside in the protected class of Washington bureaucrats who break the law, betray your public duty and attempt to destroy innocent Americans by wielding unchecked power, you will get away with it. You will have a letter of commendation written on your behalf by U.S. senators, including Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Richard Burr (R-N.C.). You will avoid being charged with a felony, even though your conduct presented serious national security risks. You successfully will evade nonstop media coverage by sympathetic journalists while they instead obsess about a lesser crime committed by an ally of the president they despise.
This isn’t the swamp. It’s the gutter.
Photo credit: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images