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Ex-Senate intel aide charged after DOJ seizes reporter's records

Ali Watkins

"The attorney general has stated that investigations and prosecutions of unauthorized disclosure of controlled information are a priority of the Department of Justice", Assistant Attorney General John Demers said in a statement late Thursday.

The Times reported that Watkins had denied to the Federal Bureau of Investigation that she used Wolfe as a source for classified information.

Wolfe, 58, served as the panel's security director for 29 years, according to the feds. He left the organization in December and formally retired in May, reported the New York Times. BuzzFeed News Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith tweeted Friday morning that the case around Wolfe seemed to stem from an article Watkins wrote in April 2017 about former Trump campaign aide Carter Page.

In his position, Wolfe had access to secret and top-secret information. A few weeks later, "REPORTER #2" published an online article that revealed the identity of "MALE-1".

"Despite Wolfe's statements, Wolfe had, in truth, engaged in extensive contact with multiple reporters", the indictment reads. At the same time, the admission of a personal relationship between the reporter and the source raised questions about journalistic ethics.

Each false statement count is punishable by up to five years in prison, though if convicted, Wolfe would nearly certainly face only a fraction of that time.

Federal prosecutors obtained reporters' records in several cases under President Barack Obama, but the Justice Department in Obama's second term adopted rules created to shield reporters in many circumstances.

"Mr. Wolfe's alleged conduct is a betrayal of the extraordinary public trust that had been placed in him", she said.

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.

Watkins, a national security reporter who previously worked for HuffPost, Politico and BuzzFeed News, declined to comment and referred questions to a Times spokeswoman.

While this is the first time that the Trump administration's Justice Department has aggressively gone after reporters' electronic communications, the Obama administration also pursued reporters' records during President Obama's first term.

Despite all the dots connected by the Justice Dept. after hoovering up email and phone records of four reporters, none of the charges brought against Wolfe involved mishandling classified info.

A federal prosecutor notified Watkins on February 13 that the DOJ had obtained information on her Google email accounts and Verizon phone, the Times reported.

"Seizing a journalist's records sends a awful message to the public and should never be considered except as the last resort in a truly essential investigation", Bruce Brown, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said in a statement. The Times learned on Thursday of the letter, which came from the national security division of the United States attorney's office in Washington.

Elements within the government have always been suspected in engaging in selective leaks, including classified information, to the media in an effort to control the news narrative.

The indictment against Wolfe is the latest effort by President Donald Trump's administration to charge officials who leak classified information to the media.

"Whether it was really necessary here will depend on the nature of the investigation and the scope of any charges", he said, according to the AP.

The Senate Intelligence Committee hinted at the leak investigations on Wednesday, noting that it was cooperating with the DOJ "in a pending investigation", while the Senate had earlier voted unanimously to adopt a resolution to share committee information with the DOJ "in connection with a pending investigation arising out of the unauthorized disclosure of information".

Since seizing a journalist's records is so delicate - and potentially an intrusion on their First Amendment rights - there are special regulations the Justice Department must follow.