Reporter Ali Watkins, age 22, made an immediate imprint on Washington journalism in 2014, helping McClatchyNews win Pulitzer honors for an insider story about the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
What is known today is that in December 2013, the Temple University intern had begun a romantic relationship with James A. Wolfe, a man 30 years her senior. He happened to sit amid a flow of juicy information as director of security for the same Senate committee. The reporter-source romance would last four years. Then the FBI intervened.
A Justice Department indictment released Friday spells out the Watkins-Wolfe timeline. Ms. Watkins and Mr. Wolfe, 57, exchanged thousands of messages, some encrypted. They met at secluded spots, including Senate office stairwells, restaurants and her apartment.
The relationship ended in December 2017, the same month the New York Times hired her. FBI agents confronted Mr. Wolfe about leaking classified information to reporters. He denied the allegations, despite mounds of two-way messages seized by the FBI. Agents showed him a photo of the couple together.
The indictment charges Mr. Wolfe, who had maintained a low-profile with the committee since the Ronald Reagan years, on three counts of making false statements.
Back in early 2014, the town marveled at a college intern’s role in such big scoop — the CIA intrusively monitored Senate computers as staffers for Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, combed thousands of top secret memos on enhanced interrogations of captured terror suspects.
The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that March, “Ali Watkins, currently a 22-year-old freelancer for McClatchy in Washington, D.C., received a tip from sources who came to trust her while making herself a presence on Capitol Hill, according to a posting by Temple’s School of Media and Communication.”
“To me, this story stands as a testament to watchdog journalism,” Ms. Watkins said.
The McClatchy Senate reporting was a finalist for the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting that went to the Washington Post. Her name and two other McClatchy reporters are listed on the Pulitzer web site.
There is strong circumstantial evidence that Mr. Wolfe was also the source for a story that said Carter Page, a Trump campaign volunteer, had met with a Russian spy in New York in 2013.
Ms. Watkins broke the story for BuzzFeed on April 3, 2017.
Said the lede: “NEW YORK — A former campaign adviser for Donald Trump met with and passed documents to a Russian intelligence operative in New York City in 2013.”
Referring to a public indictment in New York, she wrote, “BuzzFeed News has confirmed that “Male-1” is Page.”
The Trump administration delivered classified documents on Mr. Page to the committee on March 17. As the safeguard of secrets, Mr. Wolfe handled the paper work.
That day, he and Ms. Watkins exchanged scores of messages.
“On or about March 17, 2017, WOLFE exchanged 82 text messages with REPORTER #2, [Ms. Watkins] and that evening engaged in a 28-minute phone call with REPORTER #2,” the indictment states. “On or about Api| 3,2017, a news organization published an online article, under REPORTER #2’s byline, that revealed the identity of MALE-I …. On or about that same date, both before and after the online news article was published, WOLFE and REPORTER #2 exchanged approximately 124 electronic communications.”[The Carter Page spy story turned out to be less than nefarious. He worked as an energy investor in New York, had lived in Moscow and was always looking for deals. The Russian spy, Victor Podobnyy, was posted under diplomatic cover at the United Nations. This is how Mr. Page briefly knew him. In 2013, long before he became associated with Trump people, he provided Mr. Podobynn a copy of a lecture he delivered based on facts available online. Mr. Page was not charged and cooperated with the FBI.]
“I’ve watched your career take off even before you ever had a career in journalism,” he said, according to the indictment. “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 …. I always enjoyed the way that you would pursue a story, like nobody else was doing in my hallway. I felt like I was part of your excitement and was always very supportive of your career and the tenacity that you exhibited to chase down a good story.”
The indictment alleges Mr. Wolfe leaked to other reporters.
On October 16, using the encrypted messaging app Signal, he informed a reporter identified as No. 3 that he had served a subpoena on Mr. Page.
The next day the reporter asked for contact information.
The story broke the afternoon of Oct. 17. Based on an online search it appears that NBC first reported the subpoena under the bylines of two reporters.
Said the NBC story, “The Senate Intelligence Committee has subpoenaed documents and testimony from Carter Page as part of its investigation of Russia’s alleged intervention in the 2016 election, a source directly familiar with the matter told NBC News.”
When contacted by reporters about the subpoena, Mr. Page complained about a report he deemed inaccurate that said he planned to invoke the Fifth Amendment instead of testifying. That story was written Oct. 10, 2017 by Ms. Watkins for Politico, citing a single source.
Said the lede: “Carter Page, a former foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign, informed the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday that he will not be cooperating with any requests to appear before the panel for its investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election and would plead the Fifth, according to a source familiar with the matter.”
The New York Times cited Ms. Watkins‘ Page stories when it announced hiring the 26-year-old in December 2017.
The Times said, “We’re thrilled to announce that Ali Watkins of Politico is joining the Washington Bureau as a national security reporter. Ali, who covers intelligence and national security for Politico, has had a series of important scoops. She broke news that Carter Page, a former Trump campaign adviser, met with a Russian spy in 2013. She also had exclusive new details on China’s harassment of American spies. Last month, she was the first to reveal the name of the Russian woman, Olga Vinogradova, who met with the former Trump adviser George Papadopoulos during the 2016 campaign.”
In covering Mr. Wolfe’s arrest on Friday, the Times reported that the FBI sent Ms. Watkins a letter last February informing her of the probe. The Times said it was not aware of the letter until last Thursday.
The FBI acquired years of her electronic messaging, but did not read the content. This would have provided them names of contacts which apparently led the FBI to Mr. Wolfe’s phone and text communications which disclosed their lover-source relationship.
“The SSCI read is, Trumpeter lawyers will leak information about upcoming appearances, blame the committee, then use as a pretext not to cooperate,” she tweeted on Sept. 19, 2017.
According to the indictment, it was Mr. Wolfe who was doing the witness schedule disclosures.