James Wolfe, the former security director for the Senate Intelligence Committee, in Washington on June 19. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Media critic

New York Times reporter Ali Watkins will no longer be covering federal law enforcement from the New York Times’s Washington bureau, the paper announced on Wednesday. “After careful examination and discussion, I have decided to reassign her to a position in New York for a fresh start, where she will be closely supervised and have a senior mentor,” noted Dean Baquet, the Times’s executive editor, in a memo.

Watkins is caught up in a federal leak investigation that came to light last month with the arrest of James Wolfe, the long-serving director of security for the Senate Intelligence Committee. An indictment charged Wolfe with lying to authorities about contacts with reporters — one of them being Watkins, who covered the committee for several news outlets. Also included in the indictment: An allegation that Watkins and Wolfe carried on a four-year relationship (The Times reports that it lasted three years).

In a sign that intrusive leak investigations will by no means end during the Trump era, federal authorities seized email and phone records of Watkins — an extreme step that, under Justice Department guidelines, should be taken only when alternative investigative methods have been exhausted. Free-press advocacy groups have rightly denounced the seizures.

Though Watkins told the Times that Wolfe didn’t provide her with information during that relationship, the indictment cited a text message sent from Wolfe to Watkins in December 2017: “I’ve watched your career take off even before you ever had a career in joumalism. . . . I always tried to give you as much information that I could and to do the right thing with it so you could get that scoop before anyone else.”

As noted in this space, Watkins covered the Senate Intelligence Committee extensively despite her relationship with Wolfe, whom she met as a 22-year-old intern with McClatchy. In stops at HuffPost, BuzzFeed and Politico, Watkins attempted to balance the relationship and the beat, though the integrity of her reporting hasn’t been challenged. What is clear from her work history is that her editors didn’t force her off the beat out of ethical concerns, an omission cited by Baquet in his memo: “Ali is a talented journalist, and no one has challenged the accuracy of her reporting. She has also made some poor judgments. But as she started her career, I believe she was not well served by some editors elsewhere who failed to respond appropriately to her disclosures about her relationships. We also bear some responsibility: Our inquiry found that during the hiring process she disclosed aspects of her past relationships to some editors at The Times.”

When Watkins started at the Times in December 2017, she was assigned to cover federal law enforcement — not the Senate Intelligence Committee, a beat that other reporters already occupied. Even so, the Times felt compelled to investigate her work history to better understand her actions. It was also concerned that she didn’t apprise the Times when she learned in February of this year about the federal seizures of her communications records. That decision, which Watkins reportedly took on the advice of her attorney, “put our news organization in a difficult position.”

In a statement, Watkins said, “I respect and understand the Times’ review and agree that I should have handled aspects of my past relationships and disclosures differently. I sincerely regret putting The Times in a difficult position and am very grateful for the support I’ve received from my editors and colleagues here. I also appreciate the review’s conclusion that my reporting has been fact-based and accurate.”

In pursuing its investigation and laying out its decision in a memo, the Times has met the standards of transparency and accountability that it demands of others. The performance of the other organizations is less spectacular: Politico has said it is doing an internal investigation; BuzzFeed has deflected ethical questions in favor of pointing to federal overreach; and HuffPost, whose editorial management has changed since Watkins worked there, wouldn’t comment to the Erik Wemple Blog on its reaction.

Perhaps the newspaper’s findings will steer the Watkins story back to its more enduring aspect, which is why the federal government nosed into her communications records in the first place. The indictment takes a particular interest in an April 3, 2017, article that Watkins wrote for BuzzFeed, about a 2013 contact between a Russian spy and Carter Page, who would later join Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign as an adviser. It was a big scoop, and the indictment alleges that Watkins and Wolfe were communicating furiously just before and after that story hit the Internet. In his memo, Baquet said, “we abhor the actions of the government in this case. Without notice, investigators rummaged through years of a journalist’s phone and email records, an intrusion that puts First Amendment protections at risk and violated Justice Department guidelines that have bipartisan support.”

And what for? The indictment charges Wolfe with false statements, but not with leaking classified information. Baquet makes this observation: “It is worth noting that prosecutors were not looking into leaks of documents involving warfare or life-and-death secrets. Ali was reporting about an inquiry into whether one of the president’s campaign advisers had been approached by Russian agents in 2013.”

It’s no wonder, then, that President Trump applauded the news: