Political News

How Affair Between Journalist and Senate Aide Rattled Media

Posted June 24, 2018 10:25 p.m. EDT

The pearl bracelet arrived in May 2014, in the spring of Ali Watkins’ senior year in college, a graduation gift from a man many years her senior. It was the sort of bauble that might imply something more deeply felt than friendship — but then again, might not.

Watkins, then a 22-year-old intern in the Washington bureau of McClatchy Newspapers, was not entirely surprised. She had met James Wolfe, a 50-something senior aide to the Senate Intelligence Committee, while hunting for scoops on Capitol Hill. He had become a helpful source, but there were times when he seemed interested in other pursuits — like when he presented her with a Valentine’s Day card.

On that occasion, Watkins explained to Wolfe that their relationship was strictly professional. The bracelet suggested that her message had not gotten through. She asked an editor for advice, and was told that as long as the gift was not exorbitant — no stock in a company, the editor joshed — it was fine.

Watkins kept the bracelet.

The story of what happened next — of a three-year affair that unfolded between a young reporter and a government official with access to top-secret information — is now part of a federal investigation that has rattled the world of Washington journalists and the sources they rely on.

Wolfe, 57, was arrested June 7 and charged with lying to investigators about his contacts with Watkins and three other journalists. Watkins, a Washington-based reporter for The New York Times, had her email and phone records seized by federal prosecutors.

Now 26, Watkins was hired by The Times to cover federal law enforcement in December, about four months after she has said her relationship with Wolfe ended. Times officials are examining her work history and what influence the relationship may have had on her reporting. The Times is also reviewing her decision, on advice of her personal lawyer, not to immediately tell her editors about a letter she received in February informing her that her records had been seized.

The seizure of Watkins’ records was alarming to First Amendment advocates. With no allegation that classified information was disclosed, they said such a rare and aggressive tactic was unjustified and could undermine journalists’ ability to report on government misconduct.

“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 Eileen Murphy, a spokeswoman for The Times.

Strikingly, the case against Wolfe brings together several of President Donald Trump’s preoccupations: leaks, which he has railed about since taking office; Washington’s permanent bureaucracy, which he derides as the “deep state”; the news media, Trump’s favorite target; and the investigation into his campaign’s ties to Russia. The president tweeted his satisfaction that the FBI had arrested “a very important leaker,” prompting Wolfe’s lawyers to protest that their client was charged with lying, not leaking, and that he has pleaded not guilty.

This account is based on interviews with about three dozen friends and colleagues of Watkins and Wolfe, many of whom asked for anonymity to speak candidly about sensitive matters. Watkins declined to speak on the record, but she has shared many details of her experiences with others who spoke with The Times. Wolfe’s lawyers declined to comment in detail, saying: “Mr. Wolfe is fighting the charges against him in court, not in the newspaper.”

The revelation of Watkins’ affair with Wolfe stunned many journalists who had watched her ascent from college-age intern to rising star in the sensitive field of national security reporting. Their relationship played out in the insular world of Washington, where young, ambitious journalists compete for scoops while navigating relationships with powerful, often older, sources.

Avoiding conflicts of interest is a basic tenet of journalism, and intimate involvement with a source is considered verboten. In her short career, Watkins disclosed her relationship with Wolfe to her employers in varying degrees of detail — sometimes citing Wolfe’s name and position, and sometimes not — while asserting that she had not used him as a source during their relationship.

If the romance with Wolfe raised any red flags, they were not enough to prevent several news organizations from hiring Watkins, or to persuade her editors to move her off the intelligence beat. Since meeting Wolfe in 2013, Watkins reported on the Senate Intelligence Committee for Politico, BuzzFeed News, The Huffington Post and McClatchy, where her reporting was part of a submission that was a Pulitzer Prize finalist.

Last fall, after Watkins and Wolfe had broken up and while she was still reporting on the intelligence committee for Politico, she briefly dated another staff member at the committee, friends said. That relationship, which has not been previously reported, ended when the two decided not to pursue something more serious.

A Relationship, With Rules

Wolfe had a sensitive job: head of security at the Senate Intelligence Committee, where he oversaw the handling and distribution of highly classified materials delivered by agencies like the CIA and the FBI. It was a high-ranking role that Wolfe had occupied since before Watkins was born.

Watkins told friends that she did not start dating Wolfe until after she left McClatchy in fall 2014, and that when the relationship began, she imposed ground rules: She would tell Wolfe, “You are not my source,” and occasionally interrupt him if he started discussing his government work.

But sometimes, she admitted, it got complicated: She would make a mental note of tidbits he mentioned offhand, or gossip with him about Capitol Hill, or throw out a fact and gauge his reply.

The relationship has prompted concern in many newsrooms that Watkins’ conduct has made journalists, and particularly women, vulnerable to unfounded accusations of exchanging sex for information. And it has complicated what would otherwise be a straightforward argument for press advocates protesting the seizure of Watkins’ emails and phone records.

“It is already clear that Watkins’ highly unethical conduct presents a problem for press defenders,” Michael Goodwin, a New York Post columnist, wrote this month, echoing other right-wing commentators who have criticized Watkins. “Hers is not the hill they should volunteer to die on.”

Wolfe, who is married but whose wife now lives in Connecticut, retired quietly in December, shortly after investigators questioned him about possible leaks. Colleagues of Watkins describe her as a reporter of unusual talent, who cultivated a wide variety of sources throughout the federal government.

“People all across Washington are in all sorts of various relationships,” Ryan Grim, Watkins’ former editor at The Huffington Post, said in an interview. “You manage it, you put up walls, but you can’t pretend that you’re not human. Ali is a great reporter and I trust her judgment.”

“What I see is the Trump administration seizing a reporter’s records and tricking the press into writing about her sex life,” added Grim, who is now the Washington bureau chief of The Intercept. “It’s appalling what the Trump administration is doing and I don’t think you should enable it.”

Relishing the Clandestine

The gray-haired father of two stood out amid the young crowd who gathered for barbecues in Watkins’ backyard in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of Washington. She introduced him as Jim, her boyfriend.

The son of a Kentucky construction worker, James Anthony Wolfe had spent three decades in charge of security for the Senate Intelligence Committee, which he joined during Ronald Reagan’s administration, after a four-year stint in the Army. He slowly earned the trust of Democratic and Republican officials alike — sometimes sitting in on briefings so sensitive that most aides were asked to leave the room.

Wolfe relished the clandestine nature of his work — using “jimwolfe007” as his personal email address — and he projected an affable charm. Colleagues said they were dumbfounded by the government’s accusations against him — particularly since it was Wolfe’s job to arrange meetings with the FBI when other staff members were suspected of leaking.

But one colleague said there was an element of the indictment that was less surprising: that Wolfe had been having an affair.

When he met Watkins in fall 2013, Wolfe was married to his second wife, Jane Rhodes Wolfe, a former FBI agent.

Watkins was in her senior year at Temple University. She grew up in a small eastern Pennsylvania town and apprenticed at local papers before landing a coveted internship at the Washington bureau of McClatchy. In recent years, she has zipped around Washington on a motorcycle, taken boxing lessons and doted on her Husky, Kellan, whom she outfitted with a Putin chew toy.

Watkins began staking out the committee’s biweekly closed-door business meetings. “She was often the only reporter there as many veteran journalists saw little value in spending hours outside the committee’s high-security offices,” her McClatchy editor, James Asher, would later write in a nominating letter to the Pulitzer judging panel.

Her reporting led to a series in 2014 that revealed the CIA was spying on the Intelligence Committee, which was compiling a critical report on the agency’s use of torture. It earned her a full-time slot at McClatchy after graduation.

It also brought her closer to Wolfe, who would later text her saying how “proud” he was of her work on the series. In October 2014, after Watkins had jumped from McClatchy to The Huffington Post, Wolfe took her to a rooftop bar to celebrate her 23rd birthday; before the night was over, they kissed.

Wolfe’s private life was already complicated.

In 2004, amid a bitter divorce, he was accused of assault by his first wife, Leslie Adair Wolfe, who sought a protective order and claimed her husband had “threatened me verbally, pushed, shoved, strangled, spit in face” and pulled her down the hallway by her hair, according to court records.

The charges were later dropped by prosecutors, as were other charges that Leslie Wolfe made in 2009 that her former husband had broken into her house, records show. If any serious charges had been successfully prosecuted, James Wolfe might have lost his security clearance.

His lawyers, Benjamin Klubes and Preston Burton, said Wolfe “has consistently denied that he ever physically abused his first wife.”

Scoops and Disclosures

Watkins told people she was aware of Wolfe’s messy divorce, but assumed the abuse allegations were unfounded. Instead, she was concerned how a romantic entanglement might affect her journalism.

Relationships between reporters and sources are an art, not a science: In Washington, meals and late nights out with sources are part of a journalist’s job description. But becoming romantically involved is widely viewed as a conflict, opening a journalist to accusations of bias.

Watkins initially sought advice from a Huffington Post editor, Amanda Terkel, who warned her that critics can use personal relationships against journalists. Editors there decided they were comfortable with her continuing to cover intelligence because Watkins said she was not using Wolfe as a source.

Other journalists at the site had managed their own relationships with partners in government: one editor, Sam Stein, was married to a member of the Barack Obama administration, a fact he disclosed in stories.

Watkins “cared about her craft,” said Stein, one of her editors at Huffington Post. “She really cared about breaking a good story, a story that had meat on it.”

Her clips caught the attention of BuzzFeed News, which hired her in late 2015. Covering intelligence, including the Senate committee, Watkins scored a scoop that other news organizations scrambled to match: a former Trump campaign adviser, Carter Page, had met with a Russian spy in 2013.

People at BuzzFeed say they had a general sense of her personal life: During a job interview, Watkins told Miriam Elder, an editor, that she was dating a man who did intelligence work on Capitol Hill. She said he was not a source, but did not volunteer Wolfe’s name or title, and the discussion went no further. (Elder declined to comment, but did not dispute the account.)

Ben Smith, BuzzFeed’s editor-in-chief, said he believed Watkins when she said Wolfe was not a source. Smith, in an email, did not condone dating a source, but he expressed a less draconian view about reporters who date within the industry they cover. “Reporters and editors aren’t some kind of priesthood,” he wrote, adding that editors “make these genuinely complex calls on a case-by-case basis.”

Watkins made another move in May 2017, to Politico, while she and Wolfe were still together. She has told friends that when she was hired, she informed a Politico editor, Paul Volpe, that she was dating a man in the intelligence community, though she again did not volunteer Wolfe’s name or his position. A spokesman for Politico, Brad Dayspring, said only that she “did not disclose the personal nature of her relationship early on in her tenure.”

All sides, however, agree that Watkins first identified Wolfe by name to her editors after an unsettling episode that left Watkins frightened and her managers confused. It was the first concrete indication that her involvement with Wolfe might have serious consequences.

A Bizarre Tale

On the morning of June 2, 2017, a shaken Watkins approached her Politico editors with a bizarre tale.

The day before, she explained, she had received an anonymous email from a man who claimed to work for the government and wanted to meet. Over drinks at a Dupont Circle bar, the man quizzed Watkins about her sources on a story about Russian espionage. He then stunned her by reciting the itinerary of her recent vacation to Spain, including stops at Heathrow Airport and the Canary Islands.

He also knew with whom she had traveled: Wolfe.

The man said he had temporarily relocated to Washington to work on leak investigations, and asked Watkins to help him identify government officials who were leaking to the press. “It would turn your world upside down” if this turned up in The Washington Post, the man said to Watkins, who told her editors she believed he was threatening to expose her personal relationship.

Watkins later went back to the bar and obtained a receipt with the man’s name on it: Jeffrey A. Rambo, a Customs and Border Protection agent stationed in California.

Two former Justice Department officials said there was a surge last year in government personnel assigned to hunt for leaks — a priority of the Trump White House — but a current official said there is no evidence that Rambo was ever detailed to the FBI.

Rambo, reached by phone, declined to comment. A Border Protection spokesman said the matter has been referred to the agency’s Office of Professional Responsibility.

Inside Politico, there was curiosity over why a Border Patrol agent appeared to be targeting one of its reporters. But editors were also surprised to learn that the man Watkins had been dating was a powerful official on a committee that she covered.

If Politico editors had reservations about Watkins’ relationship with Wolfe, they were not reflected in her assignments: over the following six months, she continued to write about the work of the Senate Intelligence Committee, including a closed-door session with Corey Lewandowski and a meeting with John Podesta.

By August, Watkins told friends that she and Wolfe had broken up. He had been spooked by her meeting with Rambo, and was refusing to disclose their relationship to his own employers in the Senate

In the fall, Watkins started dating a different staff member from the committee. She told others that she had informed a Politico editor who did not object. But Dayspring, the Politico spokesman, said: “Politico editors were not made aware of this relationship.” About the same time, Wolfe, too, appeared to be moving on. He gave another young female reporter covering the Intelligence Committee some valuable information, according to a person with direct knowledge of the interaction. Then he sent her a series of personal nighttime texts, including one at 10 p.m. asking her what she was up to. She deflected his inquiries and never got another tip from him, the person said.

Watkins told some friends that she wanted off the beat, but that her editors were eager for scoops about the Trump-Russia investigation. (In a statement, Politico said Watkins’ work was “managed accordingly” after her disclosure about Wolfe.)

On Twitter, she wrote about the joys of reporting on the committee.

“The CIA once told me I have ‘an emotional dependence’ on covering” it, Watkins wrote as she prepared to join The Times last December, adding: “I thought they were wrong until I have to leave (they were a *little* right.) I’ve loved getting to know this weird hallway.”

A Visit From the FBI

In December, before she started work at The Times, Watkins told the paper’s national security editor, Amy Fiscus, about her previous relationships with staff members of the Senate committee, and about her encounter with Rambo. Fiscus relayed the information to the paper’s Washington bureau chief, Elisabeth Bumiller.

Fiscus and Bumiller said in interviews that they did not feel her past relationships should be a barrier to hiring her, because Watkins said Wolfe had not been a source during their relationship, and because she would not be covering the Senate Intelligence Committee. They did not go back to ask Watkins’ previous employers about how she handled her involvement with Wolfe, and Bumiller did not inform other top newsroom leaders of the relationship. Watkins was also interviewed by several other senior editors before being hired.

On Dec. 14, days before her start date, Watkins was approached by two FBI agents with questions about Wolfe, a conversation she immediately reported to her editors in the Times Washington bureau. In February, however, Watkins received a letter that she did not tell her editors about: a notice from the Justice Department, informing her that investigators had seized some of her email and phone records.

Obtaining a reporter’s private communications is so unusual that it is often reported as news, and media organizations generally protest such actions. But on the advice of her lawyer, Watkins kept the information to herself. She did not tell The Times until nearly four months later, when a story by her colleagues about Wolfe’s arrest was imminent; in a statement at the time, Murphy, the Times spokeswoman, said the paper “obviously would have preferred to know.”

The Times declined to comment on its internal review. Since Wolfe’s arrest, the accuracy of Watkins’ articles for The Times and other publications has not been challenged. In recent days, she has been out of the office on a preplanned vacation. On Feb. 15, two days after the Justice Department sent the letter notifying her that it had seized her records, Watkins sent an email to her colleagues in the Washington bureau. She had brought in chocolates for sharing — “from an old source who somehow thought it wouldn’t be creepy to bring them to a dinner, stupidly and unintentionally scheduled on valentine’s day,” she wrote.

According to a person familiar with the source, the dinner companion was not Wolfe, but a different Washington national security veteran.

“Sigh,” Watkins wrote at the end of her note about the chocolates. “Eat them!”