Media’s Defense of Ali Watkins Exposes the Swamp

In an attempt to defend its hiring of Ali Watkins, the young reporter caught having an affair with a now-indicted Senate staffer responsible for protecting some of the country’s most delicate secrets, the New York Times needs the reader to believe several incredible things:

  • President Trump, the Justice Department, and “right-wing” commentators are the true villains for targeting Watkins;
  • The affair between James Wolfe, the head of security for the Senate Intelligence Committee and a married man 32 years her senior, and Watkins is just an example of how “complicated” relationships can be in Washington, D.C.;
  • Watkins’s ties to a powerful man with inside information about people related to the Trump-Russia probe had nothing to do with her being hired by top news organizations, even though she casually shared that information during job interviews;
  • Despite repeatedly citing unnamed “intelligence officials” in many of her articles, Watkins did not use her lover as a source;
  • Watkins has been on a two-week “pre-planned” vacation since her ex-boyfriend was arrested on June 7 and charged with lying to the FBI about his relationship with her. (She has worked for the Times for six months.);
  • Watkins—not people like Carter Page, who she smeared in her reporting thanks to classified gossip from her Scoop Daddy—is the real victim because the feds seized her email and phone records.

Got all that?

Far from the portrayal of star-crossed lovers just trying to get it on in the swamplands of D.C., the actual tale is far shadier and perhaps even dangerous. For nearly 30 years, Wolfe was in charge of safeguarding all the classified information sent to the Senate; this included top-secret documents. Ironically, he was also in charge of arranging meetings between the FBI and staffers suspected of leaking. Wolfe pleaded not guilty to three charges of lying to FBI investigators about his contacts with reporters related to leaking classified and unauthorized information.

Watkins, 26, is not a victim caught up in Donald Trump’s war on the American news media. She is an ambitious journalist who accepted gifts and favors from a powerful man (perhaps more than one) in clear violation of professional ethics. Wolfe sent Watkins a bracelet when she graduated from college (the two met when she was an intern with McClatchy) and he hosted a birthday party for her after she was hired as a national security reporter for the Huffington Post.

The Wolfe indictment suggests that he might have traveled abroad and attended sporting events and movies with Watkins during the affair, which occurred between 2014 and 2017. It is safe to assume that the fiftysomething Wolfe paid for much of the dating activities with his twentysomething girlfriend while she was, according to the indictment, “employed by several different news organizations covering national security matters, including matters relating to the [committee]. During this period, [Watkins] published dozens of news articles about [the committee] and its activities.” She authored many stories about Trump associates caught up in the Trump-Russia investigation.

Despite the fact both Wolfe and Watkins crossed very clear professional boundaries, the Times reporters seemed to justify the affair as representative of the complicated relationship between journalists and high-level sources: “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. In Washington, meals and late nights out with sources are part of a journalist’s job description.” Apparently so because after their affair ended, Watkins dated other intelligence officials and Wolfe tried to court other young reporters.

While earlier reporting confirmed Watkins’s bosses at the Huffington Post, BuzzFeed, Politico and the Times knew about her affair, the Times now suggests Watkins might have been hired because of—and not in spite of—her Scoop Daddy.

In job interviews with BuzzFeed and the Times, Watkins disclosed her relationship with Wolfe (although the two had allegedly ended things before the Times hired her.) Politico and Huffington Post editors also knew of the ongoing affair while she was covering intelligence issues, but did not see any conflict because the young reporter assured them Wolfe was not the source for her stories. (Everyone together: LOL).

Watkins often cited anonymous “senior intelligence officials” or “sources close to the committee” in her articles. It strains credulity to think he was not feeding her information, either directly or through another conduit. The indictment specifically refers to her April 2017 BuzzFeed article about Trump campaign volunteer Carter Page. The timeline indicates Wolfe was her source for the piece that relied on top-secret information to connect Page with a Russian spy. (BuzzFeed editor Ben Smith continues to defend Watkins’s conduct, telling the Times that while he “did not condone dating a source,” he reminds us all that “reporters and editors aren’t some kind of priesthood.” Noted.)

When Watkins allegedly wanted off the Intelligence committee beat at Politico, they resisted her request because the “editors were eager for scoops about the Trump-Russia investigation.” Times editors also looked the other way, taking at face value Watkins’s claim Wolfe was not a source and because she would not be covering the committee. She kept her national security beat even after telling her bosses in December 2017, shortly after she was hired, that the FBI was questioning her about the Wolfe relationship. She did not tell them in February that her phone and email records had been seized.

And that, according to the Times, is the real outrage. Journalists and media groups insist the Justice Department violated Watkins’s constitutional rights when it commandeered her records. This mess is, of course, all Trump’s fault for waging war with the media. But considering her poor judgment, inexperience, and access to government secrets, there is a strong likelihood Watkins possessed classified documents on her devices. Having a bachelor’s degree in journalism does not insulate someone from breaking the law.

A lot of things don’t add up in this story. Why does Watkins remain on the Times’s payroll? (All the paper will say is that her work is under review.) What compelled top news organizations to hire such a young, inexperienced reporter and now, defend her? Does she have any connection to Fusion GPS, the firm responsible for producing the infamous Steele dossier? (There are known ties between the Senate Intelligence Committee and Fusion.) She was employed by BuzzFeed when that outlet was the first to publish the entire dossier and she subsequently wrote several articles about Trump associates: Is it possible that Watkins is one of the reporters who was paid by Fusion?

While the Times story offers some new interesting facts about this tawdry tale, it raised even more questions. And it shows how journalists—and their employers—will do anything for a scoop. Especially if it hurts Trump.

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Photo credit:  Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

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