Senate Staffer Shares Classified Information with the Press in a Straight Out of Hollywood Story

Government

Spies and iPhones

Late last week, the Department of Justice shared the indictment of James A. Wolfe, former director of security for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) for making false statements to the FBI. These false statements are associated with his having shared sensitive and classified information from within the SSCI to members of the media.

And when one digs into the indictment, one quickly realizes that it reads like a page out of a dog-eared spy novel of the past – the power of the pillow in facilitating the sharing of otherwise confidential information. The technique is highlighted in this year’s film Red Sparrow and one that has been around since time immemorial.

The FBI subpoenaed the records of at least one of four reporters with whom Wolfe is accused of sharing SSCI information, the one  with whom he had a three-year romance.  The fourth estate, as one can imagine, is up in arms about the intrusion into the reporter’s hardware and notes, and those protests are dwarfing the accusations leveled against Wolfe.

What were Wolfe’s “false statements”

In mid-December 2017, the FBI conducted a voluntary interview with Wolfe concerning leaks of SSCI materials to the media.  Using an old-school investigative technique whereby they hand the suspect pen and paper and the person being interviewed incriminates themselves in their own hand by filling out an “Investigative Questionnaire.”

The pertinent questions from the Investigative Questionnaire identified in the indictment were:

  • Do you understand that you are being provided this questionnaire as part of a criminal investigation being conducted by the FBI
    • Wolfe said yes.
  • Do you understand that making false statements, orally or in writing to the FBI in connection with a federal criminal investigation is a violation of the law, including but not limited to a violation of Title 18, United States Code, Section 1001?
    • No evidence that Wolfe asked to read that section of Title 18 of the U.S. Code, he answered yes.
  • Besides the (three named reporters), do you currently have or had any contact with any other reporters (professional, official, personal)?
    • Wolfe answered yes, but qualified that the contact had nothing to do with SSCI information.
  • If yes, who and describe the relationship (professional, official, personal).
    • Wolfe said no.
  • If yes, did you discuss or disclose any official U.S. government information or documents whether classified or unclassified which is the property of the U.S. government without express authorization from the owner of the information?
    • Wolfe said he had not.

Then Wolfe signed and dated the Investigative Questionnaire next to the warning:  “I declare under penalty of perjury, under the laws of the United States of America that the foregoing is true and correct.”

It was then that the FBI revealed a bit of what they knew to Wolfe when they began drilling into his relationship with “Reporter 2,” who has since been identified as Ali Watkins, who has stated that Wolfe was not a source of classified information for her during their relationship. When they showed Wolfe photos of he and Watkins together, he admitted he had a personal relationship with Watkins since 2014.  The self-incrimination was complete.

The indictment went on to describe the numerous instances (in some instances thousands) Wolfe was in communication with four reporters, feeding them SSCI information which enabled the reporters to “scoop” their colleagues.

How did the FBI zero in on Wolfe?

While the indictment doesn’t tell us, the actions of one news media gives us a clue that the FBI may have used a tried and true counterespionage technique in ferreting out a mole within one’s circle of knowledge. The New York Times corrected  an article which apparently contained a unique piece of information, a piece of information concerning the date upon which the FISA court had approved a wire tape. Could this information have been fed to Wolfe as part of the FBI’s investigation? Old-school seeding of information and then seeing where it sprouts never gets old. Perhaps we’ll learn more shortly.

Sessions is pursuing leaks of classified information to the media

Attorney General Sessions has made clear his intent to pursue and prosecute those who leak classified information to the media. In November 2017, he told a House committee there had been nine open investigations of classified leaks in the last three years, but there were 27 investigations open at the time of the hearing.

This is the third instance of prosecution for unauthorized sharing of classified information with the media in the recent past. The prosecution of Reality Winner, the NSA contractor continues, as does the prosecution of Terry J. Albury, former FBI special agent.

Facility Security Officer’s should include a reminder in their annual security briefings to their cleared personnel about unauthorized contact and sharing of information with media, and use these three recent examples as teaching moments.

Christopher Burgess (@burgessct) is an author and speaker on the topic of security strategy. Christopher, served 30+ years within the Central Intelligence Agency. He lived and worked in South Asia, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Central Europe, and Latin America. Upon his retirement, the CIA awarded him the Career Distinguished Intelligence Medal, the highest level of career recognition. Christopher co-authored the book, “Secrets Stolen, Fortunes Lost, Preventing Intellectual Property Theft and Economic Espionage in the 21st Century” (Syngress, March 2008).

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