How a young reporter's affair with a top US government staffer became the centre of a classified leak investigation

Mark Makela/Getty Images; CBS News; Business InsiderFormer Senate Intelligence Committee aide James A. Wolfe; New York Times reporter Ali Watkins.
  • Ali Watkins, a young New York Times national security reporter, recently had her communications seized by the Trump administration.
  • The seizure has been condemned by The Times and press freedom advocates as “an outrageous overreach” and a fundamental threat to press freedom.
  • Wrapped up in the story is Watkins’ years-long romantic relationship with a senior staffer on the Senate Intelligence Committee, which she reported on for years.
  • The staffer, James Wolfe, has been charged with lying to federal investigators about his communications with reporters, including Watkins.

Ali Watkins, a young national security reporter at The New York Times, has made headlines for years.

But now, she’s the subject of them.

Earlier this month, The Times reported that Watkins’ personal email and phone communications had been seized by the government as part of an investigation of classified information leaks.

The paper also revealed that Watkins had carried on a three-year romantic relationship with James Wolfe, the 58-year-old longtime head of security at the Senate Intelligence Committee – a senior position responsible for overseeing highly classified information provided to lawmakers from law enforcement and intelligence agencies.

Watkins, 26, has reported on national security – and specifically the Senate Intelligence Committee – for Politico, BuzzFeed News, The Huffington Post, and McClatchy.

A years-long affair

In the summer of 2013, Watkins, a rising senior at Temple University, moved to Washington for an internship at McClatchy and met Wolfe while covering national security issues on Capitol Hill. As an intern, she helped break a story that the CIA had spied on the Senate Intelligence Committee – reporting that became a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

Watkins told friends, who spoke with The Times, that she began dating Wolfe, who is married, in the fall of 2014, several months after she graduated from college when she was working at HuffPost. Wolfe started wooing her when she was a college intern working for McClatchy, giving her a Valentine’s Day card and sending her a pearl bracelet as a graduation gift, according to The Times.

Watkins’ relationship with Wolfe lasted about three years until August 2017, according to Watkins’ friends.

After splitting with Wolfe, Watkins briefly dated another intelligence committee staffer last fall while she was reporting on the committee for Politico, The Times reported on Sunday.

Wolfe has had a complicated personal life and was accused by his first wife of physical and verbal abuse during their 2004 divorce, according to court records reviewed by The Times. The multiple charges were later dropped and Wolfe denies all of them.

The investigation and records seizure

In June 2017, Watkins was contacted by a man who claimed to work for the government and asked for a meeting with her.

During a discussion at a Washington restaurant, Jeffrey Rambo, who records show was employed by Customs and Border Protection in California, grilled Watkins on her reporting on Russian espionage and revealed that he was aware of her personal relationship with Wolfe, with whom she had recently vacationed in Spain.

Watkins immediately informed her editors of the strange meeting, telling them that she believed Rambo, who said he’d been relocated to Washington to investigate government leaks, was threatening to expose her relationship with Wolfe if she didn’t help identify government leakers. Politico kept Watkins on the Senate Intelligence Committee beat, despite discovering that she was dating a senior staffer on the committee.

James Wolfe, the former director of security for the Senate Intelligence Committee.Mark Wilson/Getty ImagesJames Wolfe, the former director of security for the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Rambo was not involved in the FBI’s investigation of Wolfe, according to a law enforcement official who spoke with The Washington Post. And his unusual conduct may have violated legal and ethical rules. A spokesman for CBP said the issue has been referred to its Office of Professional Responsibility.

On December 14, just a few days before she began working at The Times, Watkins was approached by two FBI agents who asked her a series of questions about Wolfe. Watkins immediately informed her editors at The Times.

In February, Watkins received a Justice Department notice informing her that some of her phone and email records, dating back to when she was a college student, had been seized by the government.

On the advice of her lawyer, Watkins did not inform her supervisors at the Times about this highly unusual development.

On June 7, Wolfe was arrested and charged with lying to federal investigators about his communications with four reporters, including Watkins.

Following the public revelation earlier this month, press advocates have condemned the government’s seizure of Watkins’ communications – the first known case of the Trump administration gathering a journalist’s private communications.

The Committee to Protect Journalists called the government’s seizure “a fundamental threat to press freedom” and a “dangerous precedent.”

“The most important issue here remains the seizure of a journalist’s personal communications, which we condemn and believe all Americans should be deeply concerned about,” said a spokeswoman for The Times.

Who knew what – and when

Watkins has been criticised by some in the media, who believe her relationship with Wolfe was unethical and will feed unfair accusations of impropriety often made against female reporters.

At BuzzFeed, Watkins reportedly informed some of her editors of the general contours of her relationship with Wolfe, telling them that she was dating someone who worked in intelligence on Capitol Hill and said he was not a source.

Ben Smith, BuzzFeed’s editor-in-chief, told The Times that he believed Watkins when she assured him that her boyfriend wasn’t a source.

When at Politico in May 2017, Watkins has told friends that she told one of her new editors that she was dating someone in the intelligence community, but did not name Wolfe or describe his job.

A spokesman for Politico told The Times that Watkins “did not disclose the personal nature of her relationship early on in her tenure.” And the spokesman said that Politico editors were not informed of Watkins’ brief relationship with another Senate Intelligence Committee staffer last fall.

Some in the media say Watkins either did not provide her supervisors with enough information about her relationship with Wolfe, or her editors did not do enough to either inform readers of Watkins’ potential conflict of interest or remove the conflict entirely by explicitly barring her from reporting on stories that Wolfe may have played a role in.

“At what point do you disclose such nonmarital relationships? Or scramble beats to avoid a conflict? The answer: Much sooner than media organisations acted in the case of Watkins,” wroteWashington Post media columnist Erik Wemple.

But several of Watkins’ former colleagues have come to her defence.

“What I see is the Trump administration seizing a reporter’s records and tricking the press into writing about her sex life,” Ryan Grim, the Washington bureau chief of The Intercept who edited and wrote stories with Watkins at HuffPost, told The Times.

BuzzFeed News spokesman Matt Mittenthal called the investigation into Watkins “a disgusting smear campaign against a reporter.”

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