In court papers unsealed late Thursday, federal investigators appeared to focus on Wolfe as the source of a April 3 article written by Watkins while she was a reporter at BuzzFeed News in which she identified former Donald Trump campaign adviser Carter Page as being in contact with a Russian intelligence officer in 2013. Prosecutors say Wolfe eventually admitted to being in a personal relationship with that reporter, dating back to 2014. Wolfe, 57, worked for the committee for almost three decades under both Republican and Democratic leadership. Major leaks by Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden resulted in major prosecutorial efforts against leakers by the Obama administration. They added that "the charges do not appear to include anything related to the mishandling of classified information".
Wolfe "used his personal cell phone, his [Senate Intelligence Committee]-issued electronic mail account, and anonymizing messaging applications, including Signal and WhatsApp, to exchange electronic communications with reporters", prosecutors allege in the indictment.
Buzzfeed Editor in Chief Ben Smith said on Twitter that the online publication is "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".
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The reporters with whom Wolfe communicated with are not named in the indictment, but The New York Times identified one of them as its reporter Ali Watkins, who worked at BuzzFeed News and Politico prior to joining the Times in December. Watkins is suspected of receiving information from Wolfe, who she was in a relationship with for three years. But when presented with a photograph of the two of them together, Wolfe acknowledged that he and Watkins had had a years-long romantic relationship. Mr. Wolfe was not a source of classified information for Ms. Watkins during their relationship, she said. Investigators did not then get the content of the messages themselves. Burr and Warner added that the Wolfe case will "in no way" interfere with the committee's ongoing probe into Russia's interference in the 2016 USA election.
A Justice Department indictment released Friday spells out the Watkins-Wolfe timeline. According to the indictment, Wolfe told the Federal Bureau of Investigation he didn't have contact with several reporters (including Watkins) who had been writing about Page.
The seizure of a New York Times reporter's phone and email records has sent a chill down the spine of every reporter concerned about protecting his or her sources.
One of those scoops was said to be Watkins' story on April 3, 2017, for Buzzfeed News that revealed the FBI was investigating former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page because a Russian spy attempted to recruit him in 2013.
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The department informed Watkins that her records were seized in February, according to her employer, the New York Times. A key part of a functioning media is the ability to protect sources.
"Freedom of the press is a cornerstone of democracy, and communications between journalists and their sources demand protection", Times spokeswoman Eileen Murphy said.
"The Attorney General has stated that investigations and prosecutions of unauthorized disclosure of controlled information are a priority of the Department of Justice".
The Wolfe indictment shows the Justice Department has been actively pursuing leaks out of Congress.
On Friday morning, Trump said the Justice Department had caught "a very important leaker" and said it could be a "terrific thing". "But you can not leak", Trump said, speaking to reporters.
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