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Temple grad Ali Watkins, a New York Times reporter, at center of debate over press freedom and government leaks

The federal government seized years of her phone and email records.

Ali Watkins, a New York Times reporter, graduated from Temple University and interned with the Philadelphia Daily News.
Ali Watkins, a New York Times reporter, graduated from Temple University and interned with the Philadelphia Daily News. Read moreFile Photo

A Temple University graduate has found herself at the center of a federal investigation into leaks of classified information to journalists.

The case involving Ali Watkins, who covers national security for the New York Times, has sparked concerns about freedom of the press — the federal government seized years of her phone and email records — and raised questions about media ethics.

Here is what we know:

Who is Watkins, and why are authorities interested in her?

They say Watkins was in a three-year romantic relationship with James A. Wolfe, 57, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence's former director of security.

Wolfe has been charged with lying to the FBI. Authorities say he initially denied knowing Watkins but fessed up when confronted with pictures showing him with Watkins.

Watkins, who interned at the Philadelphia Daily News in spring 2013, started a personal relationship with Wolfe sometime around December 2013 when she was a Temple intern working with the McLatchy-Tribune news service, according to a federal indictment. The relationship continued after she graduated in 2014 until last December, when she joined the Times, the indictment said. Before joining the Times, Watkins had also worked at the Huffington Post, BuzzFeed and Politico.

Watkins said Wolfe was not a source of information during their relationship, the Times reported. Wolfe, who retired in May, has also denied providing her confidential information he had learned through his position on the intelligence committee.

The federal government suggests otherwise. Its indictment, which identifies Watkins as Reporter #2, says she published dozens of news articles about the committee and its activities, and that she and Wolfe "exchanged tens of thousands of electronic communications, often, including daily texts and phone calls." The two, the indictment added, frequently met in person, including at restaurants and her apartment.

In February, the Times reported, a prosecutor notified Watkins that the Justice Department had seized years of customer records and subscriber information from telecommunications companies, including Google and Verizon, for two email accounts and a phone number of hers. Investigators, the Times said, did not obtain the content of the messages themselves.

Watkins grew up in the Berks County community of Fleetwood. In college, she covered crime for The Temple News and was a member of the rowing team. Upon her hiring at the Times, Temple wrote about Watkins and asked how she became so successful so quickly. She replied, "It's more of just showing up at the odd hours when no one else is showing up. Showing up all the time and eventually running into somebody who knows something."

Why is the government’s seizure of Watkins’ phone records sparking concerns about press freedom?

Ronald Bishop, a communication and journalism professor at Drexel University, said investigators overstepped their bounds by seizing records from Watkins, apparently without prior notice.

"It's chilling and scary as hell," Bishop said. "Trump and [Attorney General Jeff] Sessions have ramped up the pursuit of leaks and leakers to a level unheard of in history."

Bishop said Watkins' romantic relationship may have been poor judgment, but it "absolutely does not justify the seizure."

Sessions said at a news conference last year that his department was cracking down on leakers of sensitive information and was working three times as many leak investigations as the Obama administration — which prosecuted more leak cases than all previous administrations combined, according to the Times.

Bruce D. Brown, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, slammed the Justice Department's seizure of Watkins' records.

"Seizing a journalist's records sends a terrible message to the public and should never be considered unless as the last resort in a truly essential investigation," Brown said in a statement. "We call on the Justice Department to explain how its actions adhered to its own guidelines for protecting newsgathering from exactly these kinds of damaging intrusions. These rules protect the public's interest in allowing journalists to report on what's happening inside the government without fear of being investigated."

What big stories with confidential information has Watkins written?

In 2014, the first year of her alleged relationship with Wolfe, Watkins helped McClatchy newspapers report a story that said the CIA was covertly monitoring computers used by aides who were preparing a Senate Intelligence Committee report critical of the spy agency's secret detention and interrogation programs.

Watkins, then a senior at Temple, was lauded by the university, which wrote:

Journalism major Ali Watkins spent some of her internship at McClatchy DC News hanging around elevators and locked doors—but not because she was idle. Rather, she was establishing relationships with people who might serve as sources for stories. And in December 2013, her creative persistence paid off.
A breaking national story was the direct result of tips she received through unnamed sources with whom she has developed trusting relationships since she began reporting for McClatchy in May 2013.

The federal indictment released this week also references a story Watkins wrote in April 2017 for BuzzFeed. The story reported that Trump campaign foreign policy adviser Carter Page had been in contact with at least one Russian spy working undercover in New York in 2013.

On March 17, 2017, two and a half weeks prior to the story publishing, the committee with which Wolfe was involved had received a classified document about Page, according to the indictment, which refers to Page as Male-1.

What else do we know about Watkins’ and Wolfe’s alleged relationship?

In December, Wolfe sent a text to Watkins that, according to the indictment, said in part:

"I've watched your career take off even before you ever had a career in journalism. . . 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 Times said Watkins told the newspaper about the relationship when it hired her. She also had disclosed the relationship to BuzzFeed and Politico editors.

How have the Times, Watkins, and Wolfe responded to the allegations?

"Freedom of the press is a cornerstone of democracy, and communications between journalists and their sources demand protection," said Eileen Murphy, a Times spokeswoman.

Some Times reporters have expressed support for Watkins on Twitter.

Watkins' personal lawyer, Mark J. MacDougall, told the Times: "It's always disconcerting when a journalist's telephone records are obtained by the Justice Department — through a grand jury subpoena or other legal process. Whether it was really necessary here will depend on the nature of the investigation and the scope of any charges."

Wolfe appeared before a federal judge Friday but did not enter a plea. He was released on personal recognizance under a number of conditions, including relinquishing his passport and a prohibition on travel outside the District of Columbia and Maryland, authorities said. He is scheduled to appear in court again Tuesday.

What have Trump and the Justice Department said?

"Mr. Wolfe's alleged conduct is a betrayal of the extraordinary public trust that had been placed in him," U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia Jessie K. Liu said in a statement. "It is hoped that these charges will be a warning to those who might lie to law enforcement to the detriment of the United States."

President Trump has called journalists the "enemy of the American people" and suggested that reporters who receive confidential information should be jailed. On Friday, Trump praised the arrest of Wolfe and said "it could be a terrific thing."

"I'm a big, big believer in freedom of the press," Trump told reporters, according to the Times. "But I'm also a believer in classified information. It has to remain classified."

What else do we know about the investigation?

The leak probe was hinted at Wednesday, when the Senate Select Intelligence Committee said it was cooperating with the Justice Department "in a pending investigation," the Times reported, and earlier when the Senate adopted a resolution to share committee information with the Justice Department "in connection with a pending investigation arising out of the unauthorized disclosure of information."

The Times said it learned Thursday about the February letter from the prosecutor to Watkins. It's unclear why Watkins did not bring up the letter earlier.

Staff writers Joseph A. Gambardello, William Bender and Robert Moran contributed to this article.