New York Times reporter Ali Watkins, 26, made headlines this week after federal investigators seized several years’ of her email and phone records as part of an investigation of James Wolfe, the former security director for the Senate Intelligence Committee who was indicted for providing false statements to the FBI. Wolfe, 57 who retired from the Committee in December 2017 has been accused but not charged with leaking encrypted classified information to at least four reporters, one of whom is believed to be Watkins (who is referred to as Reporter#2 in the court papers for the indictment) with whom he was engaged in a three-year romantic relationship from 2014-2017.
The seizure of Watkins’s records, which includes “tens of thousands of electronic communications” between the two lovebirds over the three-year period, represents the first time that the Trump Administration has taken possession of a journalist’s electronic correspondence. The FBI was particularly interested in a piece which Watkins wrote in April 2017 for Buzz Feed where she broke a story about a 2013 meeting between Russian operative Victor Podobnyy and Carter Page, who would later become a Trump foreign policy adviser.
While Ali Watkins was hardly a household name, she was clearly going places as a journalist. In fact, The Washington Post has described her as “enjoying a meteoric rise in Washington journalism”. Watkins launched her career in 2013 as an intern at the Washington bureau of McClatchy Newspapers while she was still a journalism student at Temple University. While at McClatchy she was part of a reporting team which ultimately became finalists for a Pulitzer Prize for exposing the CIA’s monitoring of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s computers which were used to prepared the unreleased study of the CIA’s secret detention and interrogation programs. Ms. Watkins relatively brief career has also included stints at, Buzz Feed and Politico where she continued to write about national security before assuming her most recent position at The New York Times. That’s a pretty comprehensive resume for a 26-year-old.
Ali Watkins was certainly determined to get ahead and there are many who wonder if that determination was the catalyst for her involvement with Wolfe who is 30 years her senior. While the public may be becoming increasingly desensitized to leaking lovebirds in the wake of most recent couple FBI staffers Peter Strozk and Lisa Page, the May December relationship between Wolfe and Watkins which began while she was still a college student makes this alliance seem particularly creepy as is further evidenced by a message which Wolfe sent to Watkins in December 2017.
“I’ve watched your career take off even before you ever had a career in journalism. … I always tried to give you as much Information (sic) that I could and to do the right thing with it so you could get that scoop before anyone else. … I always enjoyed the way that you would pursue a story, like nobody else was doing in my hal1way (sic),” … “I felt like I was part of your excitement and was always very supportive of your career and the tenacity that you exhibited to chase down a good story.”
Interestingly enough, back in 2013 Watkins herself reflected upon the dangers of getting romantically involved with a source by sending several tweets in reaction to a character on the Netflix’s show House of Cards sleeping with a congressman to get ahead in her career.
Watkins sent another tweet about Zoe Barnes two months later:
Watkins was also not completely forthright with her past employers about her relationship with Wolfe. According to The Washington Post, she never disclosed the relationship which began while she was at McClatchy to either McClatchy or Buzz Feed. Watkins did inform The New York Times of the relationship which reportedly ended in December 2017 coinciding with the start of her employment there. However, in February of this year when she received a letter notifying her that her electronic records would be seized, Watkins chose not to inform her employer. According to a spokesperson for the Times, the publication first learned of the notification letter on June 7. Watkins employment at the Times is not part of the investigation.
While Ali Watkins has not been accused of any crime and The New York Times is continuing to stand behind her, her story is emblematic of the ever evolving erosion of ethics in our society. Ali Watkins’ quick ascension as a journalist is a testament to her ambition, perseverance and talent. However, the cities, Washington and New York in particular, are crawling with ambitious talented journalists desperate to break the story. And the 24/7 news cycle has only exacerbated the importance of being first. Even when you are first, the champagne popping moment is fleeting. The fear of being “scooped” or deemed irrelevant keeps reporters on a treadmill which never shuts off.
Sometimes these fears motivate journalists to take short cuts and cross ethical divides. Time will tell if Ali Watkins was one of them.
Image: Screen Shot: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jA9iVl9lVEw