Ali Watkins acknowledged source protection problems in 2015

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[Photo: Ali Watkins / Twitter}

When the Spy Museum approached then-Huffington Post reporter Ali Watkins with an invitation to appear on their podcast nearly three years ago, they were almost certainly drawn to the budding reporter’s uncanny ability to unearth sources who were willing to share some of the government’s most-guarded national security intelligence.

Watkins was a wunderkind for a number of reasons. For one, as an intern-turned-stringer for the McClatchy news service, she managed to break a number of stories on the CIA’s purported spying of the Senate Intelligence Committee over the agency’s use of clandestine torture programs during the Iraq war. Those stories, which McClatchy said was the result of “old-fashioned shoe leather reporting,” earned Watkins and her colleagues a finalist spot for the prestigious Pulitzer Prize.

For another reason, Watkins had scooped her way up to a national reporting gig at the Huffington Post, filing report after report, scoop after scoop, sometimes from the front door of the Senate Intelligence Committee where at least one of her guarded sources worked as the security chief.

All of this was surprising given that the game had changed just two years earlier: The disclosure of dragnet government surveillance by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden meant a lot of things to a lot of people who regularly handle material that they would rather the government not know anything about. For reporters, it meant a complete re-thinking of how best to protect confidential, anonymous sources who have sensitive material to share.

“It might be beneficial to me to just grow up getting used to this, because it’s certainly not going to get any better,” Watkins said on the Spy Museum’s podcast. “I think it’s a willingness of the Obama administration’s willingness to go after sources and that it’s much-easier to track down sources given the electronic communication age.”

During the interview, Watkins never mentioned that one of her best sources worked inside the Senate Intelligence Committee, a source who had worked in the intelligence field longer than she’d been alive, and someone with whom she was carrying on a personal relationship.

Nearly three years after that interview, investigators would use the same electronic communications that Watkins said made it “better” and “easier” to track down sources to the doorstep of James Wolfe, the Senate Intelligence Committee’s security chief. According to an indictment unsealed on Thursday, Wolfe and Watkins — identified in court records as “Reporter #2” — had sent each other e-mails, phone calls and text messages using both secured and unsecured methods.

At one point, Wolfe contacted Watkins using his government-issued e-mail address. The two were also spotted together at the Hart Senate Office Building and other locations by investigators monitoring Wolfe as their prime suspect in a case involving media leaks.

Wolfe’s relationship with Watkins ended in December 2017, coincidentally around the same time Watkins left BuzzFeed News for the New York Times and announced an “end” to her reporting on the Senate Intelligence Committee. Just as she hadn’t mentioned her relationship in the Spycast interview, she apparently attempted to conceal her relationship with Wolfe from her employers.

That attempt was met with mixed success. Officials at McClatchy, where Watkins was nominated for the Pulitzer, said they didn’t know Watkins and Wolfe were dating and that she had used him as a source until the indictment against Wolfe came down on Thursday. One executive at the news service called Watkins’ behavior “inappropriate.”

From the Huffington Post, Watkins went to POLITICO where she reportedly tried to keep her relationship with Wolfe a secret from her bosses. They found out anyway, and she was “managed accordingly,” the New York Times reported. She was subjected to extra supervision by her editors when reporting on national security matters, the Washington Post reported (an earlier version of the Post’s story that appears on affiliated websites says Watkins was “was kept from reporting any stories involving the committee”).

After just a few months at POLITICO, Watkins went to BuzzFeed News, where at least some of the editors she worked with knew about her relationship with Wolfe. So, too, did New York Times officials when they hired Watkins earlier this year.

But Watkins failed to disclose to her bosses at the Times that the Justice Department seized records related to her personal e-mail and phone services as part of an investigation when she received a letter from prosecutors in February. The Times said Watkins notified her bosses about the letter for the first time on Thursday — coincidentally, the same day a federal judge unsealed the grand jury indictment against Wolfe. Officials at the Times first said they weren’t sure why Watkins withheld the information only to later say the reporter was acting on the advice of her attorney.

Although Watkins may not have always been forthcoming about her source or the relationship they shared, Wolfe could be subjected to paying a high price for their secret romance. In October, Wolfe was asked by federal investigators if he had routinely met with reporters in a personal, professional or official capacity. He answered “no” in writing to all three, only to change his response after FBI agents produced a photograph of him and Watkins together.

Authorities say they recovered several e-mails, phone calls and messages sent on encrypted apps that point to Wolfe as a once-unnamed source for a number of news reports based on leaks the emanated from the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Wolfe was charged earlier this month with three counts of lying to investigators and was arrested at his home on Thursday. Although he was not charged with mishandling classified information, prosecutors allege Wolfe provided secret materials to a number of reporters. So far, only Watkins has been named, and only because the New York Times did so.