The indictment of James Wolfe, the former Senate Intelligence Committee official accused of lying to investigators about media leaks who was once engaged in a romantic relationship with Watkins, has thrust the reporter in the national spotlight after a story by her current employer claimed that the Justice Department covertly seized records related to her personal e-mail and phone use.
The report, which was published on Thursday and updated after the indictment was announced, said the Justice Department notified Watkins about the seizure in February, several months after investigators obtained the documents. The records obtained were focused on services provided by Google Mail and Verizon.
Before the records were seized, Watkins had been approached by federal investigators on at least one occasion.
Although the records sought appeared to be focused on personal accounts instead of professional ones, news of the Justice Department’s seizure of a reporter’s records drew heavy condemnation from those in the media industry. Ben Smith, the editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed News where Watkins once worked as a national security reporter, said the news organization was “deeply troubled by what looks like a case of law enforcement interfering with a reporter’s constitutional right to gather information about her own government.”
Smith did not respond when asked if Watkins had previously disclosed to BuzzFeed that she had been contacted by the FBI in the leak investigation. But other news outlets where Watkins once worked said they were caught off guard by Thursday’s story because she hadn’t mentioned using Wolfe as a source during her employment.
“We were not aware of these allegations that Mr. Wolfe had a relationship with Ali Watkins until the news of the indictment broke,” McClatchy Vice President of News Tim Grieve told the Washington Post on Saturday. “It’s clearly inappropriate for a reporter to be in a relationship with a source and to be reporting on him.”
Watkins’ work at McClatchy in 2014 was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. From late 2014 to early 2017, she worked for BuzzFeed News where she wrote a number of stories that were mentioned briefly in the indictment against Wolfe. Last May, when Watkins joined POLITICO, the news organization said she didn’t initially disclose her relationship with Wolfe and was immediately barred from reporting on Senate Intelligence Committee matters after finding out about the romantic involvement.
Her employment lasted seven months before she moved on to the New York Times. It was not clear if the Times knew about her prior romantic involvement with Wolfe. When the Justice Department sent a letter to Watkins in February notifying her of the seizure, she held off on telling the Times until hours before the indictment against Wolfe came down on Thursday.
“We obviously would have preferred to know,” a Times spokeswoman told the Post, later adding that Watkins decided not to notify the Times on the advice of her attorney.
Although the records sought appeared to involve accounts Watkins used in a personal capacity, that did not stop a number of media advocacy organizations from decrying the perceived government surveillance and intrusion against a reporter involved in news gathering practices.
“We believe that the government’s seizure of Ali Watkins’s data sets a dangerous precedent,” the Committee to Protect Journalists said in a statement. “We fear it could be an opening salvo in an ongoing battle over reporters’ ability to protect their sources.”
The Freedom of the Press Foundation echoed that sentiment, saying in a statement of its own that Watkins was “having her private records scrutinized and spied on by the government for doing her job as a journalist.”
“The Justice Department’s move should be loudly condemned by everyone no matter your political preference,” Trevor Timm, the foundation’s executive director, said in a blog post.
The Times also downplayed the fact that Watkins did not disclose her relationship with Wolfe or the letter sent in February about the records that were seized.
“The real issue here is the government’s intrusion into a reporter’s private communications,” Times spokeswoman Eileen Murphy said in a news article published by the website. “This should be a grave concern to anyone who cares about an informed citizenry.”