Ali Watkins, a New York Times reporter, had years’ worth of phone and email records seized by the Trump administration’s Justice Department, the New York Times reported Thursday evening. On February 13, Watkins found out that federal prosecutors were about to seize the data related to two email accounts and a phone number from telecommunications companies, including Verizon and Google.
A Senate Intelligence Committee staffer was arrested Thursday evening on charges of lying to FBI agents during an investigation into the leak of classified information in which federal authorities seized emails and phone records belonging to Watkins, according to USA Today.
James A. Wolfe, 58, who served as the director of security for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) for nearly three decades, is alleged to have made false statements to agents in December about his contacts with three reporters, according to federal court documents. You can read the indictment later in this article in full. Although the Wolfe indictment does not name the reporters, the New York Times reported that Watkins was previously in a relationship with Wolfe that she disclosed to the newspaper and other news organizations for which she once worked.
Here’s what you need to know about Ali Watkins:
1. Watkins Helped Break a High-Profile Story on the CIA’s Secret Detention & Interrogation Program
According to The New York Times, the FBI was investigating Wolfe over a leak involving Carter Page. “It appeared that the F.B.I. was investigating how Ms. Watkins learned that Russian spies in 2013 had tried to recruit Carter Page, a former Trump foreign policy adviser.” Here is that article, which ran in Buzzfeed. The story starts, “A former campaign adviser for Donald Trump met with and passed documents to a Russian intelligence operative in New York City in 2013.”
Watkins, a 22-year-old freelancer for McClatchy in Washington, D.C. at the time, received a tip from trusted sources while she was building herself a name on Capitol Hill, according to a posting by Temple’s School of Media and Communication. Watkins was still a senior in Temple University’s journalism program when she broke the story.
The report delves into the CIA’s secret detention and interrogation program, the team of reporters said in a story that was widely circulated. According to the story, the CIA monitored computers used by Senate aides to prepare the 6,300-page study that reportedly included waterboarding and other interrogation methods.
The story made national news for a plethora of reasons, but the biggest issue was that the monitoring violated an agreement between the committee and the agency and “mark[ed] a breakdown in relations between the CIA and Congress,” McClatchy reported.
“To me, this story stands as a testament to watchdog journalism,” said Watkins, who was previously a Philadelphia Daily News intern.
2. She was Recruited by the Huffington Post Shorly After Breaking the CIA Story & Wrote Tips About Covering SSCI on Twitter
After Watkins broke the story on the CIA spying on computers used by the Senate Intelligence Committee in 2014, the Huffington Post hired her almost immediately.
Washington bureau chief Ryan Grim had made the announcement to staff in a memo the afternoon that Watkins was hired. In it, he said, “We knew Ali would be a fantastic hire back when she was a college senior and worked on the McClatchy team that broke the news that the CIA was spying on the Senate Intelligence Committee over the panel’s torture report. Ali is a 2014 graduate of Temple University, where she excelled not only in journalism, but as a rower and triathlete as well. Ali will continue her focus on national security and the intelligence community, while covering general politics and Congress as well.”
In December 2017, Watkins wrote on Twitter, “After four and a half years, today is my last day covering the Senate Intelligence Committee. I am here to report that I never actually did secure a chair.”
She posted a series of other tweets about it. “Covering Senate Intel, though, has been crazy and frustrating and a hell of a lot of fun. I learned a lot. And since there’s heightened interest in this otherwise quiet Hill fixture, here’s some random stuff I learned.”
“The concept of ‘who watches the watchmen’ is so important. SSCI is *the* external oversight check on some of the administration’s most secretive programs. Someone (ie, journalists) needs to make sure they’re doing it well. It’s easy to write the ‘SSCI is too secret! Closed-door oversight is ironic!’ story. Agreed, great. Good to recognize & challenge it. Also important to get over it and figure out how to work around it. Being outraged will exhaust you and distract you from actually covering it.”
“The interest in SSCI ebbs and flows. But it should be actively watched, *especially* when nobody seems to care. That’s when it’s hard and boring and sometimes days go by without anything happening. But that’s when it’s most important. By ‘actively watching,’ I don’t mean requisite phone calls or big hearings. Pompeo, Brennan, Comey, Stewart, Clapper, or Rogers show/ed up All. The. Time. No fanfare. No cameras. If you’re not here in person, you wouldn’t know. It’s important to see that and ask questions.”
“Respecting and understanding the system has made me better at covering it. By and large, I’ve found SSCI staff to be wicked smart, experienced people who don’t want to lose their clearances. When you make an effort to understand that, it makes you a better reporter (and human).”
“The partisanship of the committee goes in waves. It’s good to keep track of that, communicate it and hold them to account about it. Politics and intelligence have historically not mixed well. Neither has its oversight. On that note, be cognizant when you’re reading stuff you suspect is leaking from the Hill, regardless of committee. Be able to separate politics from the facts. The number of people fully read into some of this sensitive stuff is infinitesimally small. Even *MORE* important, I’ve learned to spot the difference between political reporting about intelligence stuff, and intelligence reporting. They’re both super important. They’re also different. This is especially important on the Russia story. SSCI is a repository for almost every secret program and covert action you can imagine (and those you can’t). Russia is far from their only responsibility. They have to oversee more than 17 (17!) IC components. There’s way more to SSCI than Russia. That should be covered, too.”
She added, “The CIA once told me I have ‘an emotional dependence’ on covering SSCI. I thought they were wrong until I have to leave (they were a *little* right.) I’ve loved getting to know this weird hallway. Thanks to everyone who followed and put up with my angsty tweets about chairs.”
Watkins ironically also postrd a tweet in reference to the character Zoe Barnes on House of Cards, claiming that she once wanted to be Barnes until she started “sleeping with [a] source.” She ended the tweet with a hastag #badlifechoice.
3. Watkins is a National Security Correspondent & has Worked for Buzzfeed, Politico and McClatchy, Among Others
Ali Watkins is a national security correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC, according to her Buzzfeed profile.
Aside from working for the New York Times and Buzzfeed, Watkins previously worked for Politico, The Huffington Post and McClatchy, according ot her LinkedIn page.
Watkins earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Journalist from Temple University and graduated in 2014. She quickly made a name for herself as a journalist, and even pinned a tweet to Twitter giving her personal Signal/WhatsApp number in case somebody wanted to contact her about a story on the ATF, DEA or Secret Service.
Her Twitter profile reads, “National security at @nytimes. I like my dog and motorcycles and Philadelphia. Send secrets and/or whiskey” and gives her New York Times email.
Her work has also been seen on MSN, The Boston Globe, Seattle Times, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, RealClearPolitics, The Charlotte Observer, and the Toronto Star, according to her profile on MuckRack.
4. Watkins Had a Romantic Relationship with Wolfe for Three Years
Watkins, who interned at the Daily News in the spring of 2013, was notified by a prosecutor in February that the Justice Department had seized years’ worth of her records, according to the New York Times. The records did not include the content of the messages. You can read the indictment above.
According to the Philly Inquirer, shortly before she joined the New York Times, Watkins was contacted by FBI agents about her romantic relationship with James A. Wolfe, 57, the Senate Intelligence Committee’s former director of security, that allegedly lasted three years. Wolfe was being looked at as part of the investigation, the newspaper reported.
Watkins’ lawyer Mark J. MacDougall told the New York Times: “It’s always disconcerting when a journalist’s telephone records are obtained by the Justice Department — through a grand jury subpoena or other legal process. Whether it was really necessary here will depend on the nature of the investigation and the scope of any charges.”
“Freedom of the press is a cornerstone of democracy, and communications between journalists and their sources demand protection,” said Eileen Murphy, a Times spokeswoman.
Court documents detail Wolfe’s alleged contacts with reporters, but they do not name the journalists. According to court documents, “On or about October 30, 2017, FBI agents met with Wolfe and informed him that they were investigating the unauthorized disclosure of classified information that had been provided to the SSCI by the Executive Branch of the United States for official purposes.”
FBI agents “showed WOLFE a copy of a news article authored by three reporters, including REPORTER #1, about an individual (referred to herein as “MALE-l), that contained classified information that had been provided to the SSCI by the Executive Branch for official purposes,” the court documents say.” Asked if he had contact with any of them, he answered no, according to the indictment.
The indictment further alleges that Wolfe said no when asked “if he had traveled internationally with any reporter, gone to a baseball game or to the movies with a reporter, or had weekly or regular electronic communication with a reporter.” It’s not definitively clear from the documents which reporter is Watkins.
The indictment contains further details about Wolfe’s communications with a reporter called only “reporter #2”:
The FBI agents asked WOLFE about an article written by REPORTER #2 that contained information that had been provided to the SSCI by the Executive Branch for official purposes. WOLFE denied knowing about the reporter’s sources for the article. After WOLFE stated that he did not know about REPORTER #2’s sources, FBI agents confronted WOLFE with pictures showing WOLFE together with REPORTER #2. After being confronted, WOLFE admitted to the FBI agents that he had lied to them, and that he had engaged in a personal relationship with REPORTER #2 since 2014, but maintained that he (WOLFE) had never disclosed to REPORTER #2 classified information or information that he learned as Director of Security for the SSCI that was not otherwise publicly available. WOLFE also stated that he never provided REPORTER #2 with news leads, intelligence, or information about non-public SSCI matters.
According to the indictment, “Despite WOLFE’s statements, WOLFE had, in truth, engaged in extensive contact with multiple reporters, including conveying to at least two reporters information about MALE-1. WOLFE used his personal ce1l phone, his SSCI-issued electronic mail account and anonymizing messaging applications, including Signal and WhatsApp, to exchange electronic communications with reporters.”
Wolfe is accused of having “regularly met clandestinely in person, and communicated, with REPORTER #2, with REPORTER #3, and with other reporters, in places where the substance of their communications was unlikely to be detected by others, including secluded areas of the Hart Senate Office Building, restaurants and bars, and private residences.”
The indictment provides extensive details about Wolfe and reporter 2, without naming that person.
During in or around 2013 and in or around 2014, REPORTER #2 was an undergraduate student serving as an intern with a news service in Washington, D.C. In approximately December 2013, WOLFE and REPORTER #2 began a personal relationship that continued until in or around December 2017. From in or around mid-2014 through in or around December 2017, REPORTER #2 was employed in Washington, D.C. by several different news organizations covering national security matters, including matters relating to the SSCI. During this period, REPORTER #2 published dozens of news articles about SSCI and its activities. From in or around mid-2014 through in or around December 2017, WOLFE and REPORTER #2 exchanged tens of thousands of electronic communications, often including daily texts and phone calls, and they frequently met in person at a variety of locations including Hart Senate Office Building stairwells, restaurants, and REPORTER #2’s apartment. WOLFE and REPORTER #2 also communicated with each other through encrypted ceIl phone applications.
Wolfe is accused of telling “Reporter #2” that “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 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. 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.”
5. Watkins Claims that Wolfe was “Not a Source of Classified Information During Their Relationship
Before starting at the The New York Times, the FBI allegedly probed Watkins for information on her romantic relationship with Wolfe, but Watkins said that she didn’t answer their specific questions on the unauthorized leaks.
The New York Times reported that Watkins said Wolfe had “not been a professional source of information for her.” She said that before joining the New York Times she told editors at two previous employers about her relationship with Wolfe and continued to cover national security and the Intelligence Committee for them.
According to Justice Department rules for getting information from, or records of, members of the news media, “the approach in every instance must be to strike the proper balance among several vital interests: Protecting national security, ensuring public safety, promoting effective law enforcement and the fair administration of justice, and safeguarding the essential role of the free press in fostering government accountability and an open society.
Wolfe and his legal team deny all allegations, pleading “not guilty” to the charges and calling the accusations “unfair and unjustified” prosecution.