Times Reviews Reporter’s Involvement in Leak Case

Posted June 13, 2018 12:33 a.m. EDT

The New York Times is reviewing the work history of Ali Watkins, a Washington-based reporter at the newspaper whose email and phone records were seized by prosecutors in a leak investigation case that has prompted an outcry among press advocates.

The private communications of Watkins, 26, who joined The Times in December, were obtained by the Justice Department as part of an investigation into a former Senate Intelligence Committee aide, James A. Wolfe, who was charged last week with making false statements to the FBI.

Watkins and Wolfe, 57, had an extended personal relationship that ended last year. Prosecutors suspected that Wolfe had leaked classified intelligence to reporters, a claim that he denies.

The Times said on Tuesday it was conducting a review of Watkins’ involvement in the case, including the nature of her relationship with Wolfe and what she disclosed about it to her prior employers. Watkins informed The Times about the prior relationship after she was hired by the paper and before she began work in December. She has said that Wolfe did not provide her with information during the course of their relationship.

Wolfe was one of the highest-ranking aides on the Senate Intelligence Committee, which Watkins covered extensively at Politico, BuzzFeed News, The Huffington Post and the McClatchy Co., where she started as an intern in 2013. Her reporting for McClatchy on the Senate Intelligence Committee led to an investigative series that was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize. At The Times, Watkins has covered federal law enforcement.

The seizure of Watkins’ records has raised concerns about overreach by the Justice Department, particularly among news organizations and press freedom groups.

On Dec. 14, days before she began working at The Times, Watkins was approached by FBI agents, who asked about her contact with Wolfe; she said she did not answer their questions at the time.

She was also approached last June, shortly after she was hired at Politico, by a man who identified himself as a government agent and brought up Wolfe, according to several people familiar with her description of the interaction, who requested anonymity to discuss a sensitive matter.

The man contacted Watkins and offered to meet as a potential source for her reporting, these people said. During a meeting in Washington, he told Watkins that he was aware of her personal relationship with Wolfe and asked if she would assist him in ferreting out government leakers and the journalists they worked with.

On Tuesday, The Washington Post reported that the man who had approached Watkins was Jeffrey A. Rambo, whom the paper identified as a Customs and Border Protection agent. In a statement, the agency said that its Office of Professional Responsibility would review the matter.

“CBP takes all allegations of employee misconduct seriously,” the statement read. “The allegation has been immediately referred to CBP’s Office of Professional Responsibility.”

Unsettled by the interaction, Watkins informed her managers at Politico. It was the first time she had disclosed to her editors that she and Wolfe had been personally involved, according to three people familiar with the conversation. Watkins’ byline continued to appear on numerous Politico stories focused on the Senate Intelligence Committee until she left for The Times last December.

Watkins declined to comment Tuesday. Her lawyer, Mark J. MacDougall, also declined to comment.

“Ms. Watkins did not disclose the personal nature of her relationship early on in her tenure at Politico, but she was managed accordingly once that disclosure was made,” a spokesman for Politico, Brad Dayspring, said in a statement.

The move by prosecutors at the Justice Department to seize Watkins’ email and phone records was the first known instance of the Trump administration pursuing a journalist’s private communications. The Committee to Protect Journalists called the move “a fundamental threat to press freedom,” and First Amendment lawyers expressed concern about a government crackdown on journalists.

Watkins received a letter in February from the Justice Department informing her it had obtained her records. She consulted her lawyer about the letter at the time and on his advice did not tell The Times about it until late last week.

The Times’ inquiry is being led by Charlotte Behrendt, an associate managing editor who helps manage personnel, and Andrew Gutterman, the head of the paper’s labor department. Behrendt led an inquiry last year into the conduct of Glenn Thrush, a Times reporter who was suspended following allegations of inappropriate sexual behavior.

Watkins is set to leave on a previously planned vacation, said Eileen Murphy, a Times spokeswoman.