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Former Senate Intel security chief sentenced to 2 months for lying to FBI

White House cracks down on leaker

James Wolfe, the former director of security for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI), was sentenced Thursday to two months in prison for lying to the FBI about his dealings with a reporter. Wolfe pleaded guilty in October to one federal count of making false statements.

In addition to prison time, Wolfe must complete four months of supervised release, pay a $7,500 fine and perform 20 hours of community service a month during his release period. He will be able to self surrender and has request a minimum security facility in Cumberland, Maryland. 

U.S. District Judge Ketanji B. Jackson said in court she understood the human nature aspect of why Wolfe lied: "I can certainly imagine how scary it must've been," Judge Jackson said. "In that moment you had been caught. The jig was up." 

During a December 2017 interview, Wolfe misled FBI agents who were investigating leaks to the media about the SSCI. Despite warnings that lying to federal agents was a crime, Wolfe denied having contact with various reporters, including "Reporter #2," later identified by The New York Times as reporter Ali Watkins. Watkins dated Wolfe before joining the paper to cover the intelligence community.

Jackson said she took Wolfe's high position as a government official into account when determining his sentence, as well as his decades of service to the country, saying each factor "cuts both ways." She said Wolfe should have known not to lie to law enforcement when he had the opportunity to tell the truth, particularly given the seniority of his position.

Wolfe served as the SSCI's top security official for three decades. According to the government's sentencing memorandum, in this position he was entrusted with "receiving, maintaining, and managing the classified national security information provided to the SSCI by the USIC, including the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, and the FBI, in furtherance of the SSCI's critical intelligence oversight functions."

In addition to those responsibilities, Wolfe was "specifically prohibited," the memo said, from talking to the press about SSCI matters without proper authorization. 

Wolfe was arrested in June and charged with a three counts of making false statements to a government agency after lying about his communications with reporters. However, as part of his plea agreement, he pleaded guilty only to the third count of the indictment, which dealt with his contacts with "Reporter #3."

In court on Thursday, Wolfe took a deep breath before delivering a tearful allocution. He was handed a tissue box, and took a few moments to compose himself before saying solemnly, "Your honor, it saddens me to stand before you today." 

"I lied," Wolfe said. "To protect my wife, my sons, and selfishly, I lied about those to protect myself and my job."

Bipartisan members of the SSCI had written to the judge requesting leniency for Wolfe, saying "we do not believe there is any public utility in depriving him of his freedom." In his statement on Thursday, Wolfe said he took his job working for the Senate "very seriously," and said he had let those members down.

Wolfe called his criminal conduct a "personal failure," and apologized in court to his family, friends, the court and the Senate committee. He and his lawyers asked the judge for leniency and to impose a sentence of probation and community service so he could give back to his country.

Wolfe and his attorneys did not comment after the hearing. 

Due to the sensitive nature of Wolfe's former job, the government had asked the court for a harsher sentence than the zero to six months recommended by federal sentencing guidelines, telling the court: "The FBI and other stakeholders were forced to devote significant time and resources to investigate and assess whether damage to the national security had been done." The government asked the judge for a sentence of 24 months imprisonment.

Prosecutor Jocelyn Ballantine argued in court that it was "impossible to monetize the damage that Mr. Wolfe's conduct caused in this case," citing the enormous undertaking that was required to ensure Wolfe's communications had not threatened national security. But she estimated the efforts may have cost the government around $250,000. 

Jackson asked Ballantine what it was "about his falsehoods" that led them to believe he may have harmed national security. Ballantine noted it was Wolfe's extramarital affair with Watkins, as well as his other contacts with reporters: "In the government's view it is a continuing course of conduct that culminates in the lies." In trying to defend their request for a stricter sentence, Ballantine called the case a "unicorn," saying it was hard to find the proper precedent to illustrate the government's claim. 

Preston Burton, one of Wolfe's attorneys, reiterated to the judge that there is "no evidence" his client leaked classified information or endangered national security. 

Ultimately, Jackson rejected and denied the government's request, saying prosecutors failed to show how the lies themselves warranted a departure from sentencing guidelines. 

"Again, we have to isolate what is criminal and what is not," Jackson stated. The judge reiterated that "maintaining relationships with reporters is not a crime." 

Before imposing the sentence, she reiterated to those assembled in court that the case is "not really about leaking — it's about lying."

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