Donald Trump

Ignore the Salaciousness of the Ali Watkins Affair. The Real Story Is Feds Spying on a New York Times Reporter.

Trump extends Obama's war on leakers, jeopardizing a free press.

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NYT
Francis Dean /Deanpictures/Newscom

New York Times Editor-in-Chief Dean Baquet announced Tuesday that he had reassigned Ali Watkins, a young national security reporter whose romantic relationship with James Wolfe, a Senate Intelligence Committee aide 30 years her senior, has raised ethical concerns.

The story has "rattled Washington media," according to the Times' own reporting on this matter. But there's an issue here that's much more important than two consenting adults carrying on an ill-advised affair: the behavior of federal prosecutors, who obtained Watkins' emails and very clearly spied on her in service of a dubious war on leakers.

In his memo explaining that Watkins would be transferred from D.C. to New York City, receive a mentor, and start a new beat, Baquet wrote:

We hold our journalists and their work to the highest standards. We are giving Ali an opportunity to show that she can live up to them. I believe she can. I also believe that The Times must be a humane place that can allow for second chances when there are mitigating circumstances.

Baquet makes a strong case that this was the correct course of action. It's not entirely clear Watkins used Wolfe a source while they were dating, nor does it seem like she misled anyone at The Times about the relationship. She's a talented reporter, and deserves the chance to learn from this experience.

It's tempting to see every story as a story about the media, and salaciousness is inherently distracting. But the bigger issue is still the government's involvement.

Federal authorities investigated Wolfe for allegedly leaking classified secrets to reporters, including Watkins. He was arrested last month as part of the Trump administration's crackdown on leakers, though he was ultimately charged with lying to the FBI, not with leaking.

FBI agents did not merely question Watkins about her relationship with Wolfe; they obtained her emails and phone records. At one point, a man claiming to work for the government met with her at a bar and threatened to expose the relationship. This man, who did not give his name or profession, had apparently been spying on her:

He then stunned her by reciting the itinerary of her recent vacation to Spain, including stops at Heathrow Airport and the Canary Islands.

He also knew with whom she had traveled: Mr. Wolfe.

The man said he had temporarily relocated to Washington to work on leak investigations, and asked Ms. Watkins to help him identify government officials who were leaking to the press. "It would turn your world upside down" if this turned up in The Washington Post, the man said to Ms. Watkins, who told her editors she believed he was threatening to expose her personal relationship.

Ms. Watkins later went back to the bar and obtained a receipt with the man's name on it: Jeffrey A. Rambo, a Customs and Border Protection agent stationed in California.

Two former Justice Department officials said there was a surge last year in government personnel assigned to hunt for leaks—a priority of the Trump White House—but a current official said there is no evidence that Mr. Rambo was ever detailed to the F.B.I.

The crackdown on leaks did not begin with this administration. President Barack Obama waged an unprecedented war on whistleblowers, prosecuting more leakers than all previous presidents combined. But the treatment of Watkins is stunning behavior that gravely undermines press freedom. If it makes officials less likely to leak information to reporters, that will probably please President Trump, but it should worry everyone who wants a transparent government and an adversarial press.

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  1. but it should worry everyone who wants a transparent government and an adversarial press

    To be sure, the Obama administration was the most transparent administration in history and therefore there was no need for an adversarial press until Trump came along.

    1. I think we’ve gone past worry into acceptance that that will never happen.

      1. “James Wolfe, a Senate Intelligence Committee aide ”

        If you hang out with people like that it is to be expected that you will be spied on.

  2. The entire post is horseshit. Wolfe was no whistleblower; he was divulging secrets for personal gain. And even with the First Amendment standing tall, the press has no special privileges with regards to law. They cannot speed and run red lights on the way to the scene, and they cannot traffic with spies. Lay down with dogs, get fleas.

    1. Basically. Wolfe was committing a crime, leaking INVESTIGATION documents to the press. He wasn’t whistle blowing by any rational measure. He wasn’t leaking malfeasance…he was leaking what investigators had already turned up.

      The bigger scandal is that the press sees no need to report when their own reporters violate their ethical responsibilities so thoroughly as she did.

      And if you think this will stop leaks in pursuit of pussy, you’re insane.

      1. And Reason continues to refer to Wolfe as an “aide” when he was the Senate Intelligence security director. This guy is not Edward Snowden. He leaked information he was charged with protecting so his girlfriend could enhance her career by adding to the TDS narrative. This woman was involved with a man she knew was selling secrets for pussy. In this case it happens to be a federal crime so the feds read her emails. This story is not about a brave reporter communicating with a whistle blower to expose government corruption and it has nothing to do with the 1st amendment. And Reason beclowns itself once again by publishing this crap.

      2. And Reason continues to refer to Wolfe as an “aide” when he was the Senate Intelligence security director. This guy is not Edward Snowden. He leaked information he was charged with protecting so his girlfriend could enhance her career by adding to the TDS narrative. This woman was involved with a man she knew was selling secrets for pussy. In this case it happens to be a federal crime so the feds read her emails. This story is not about a brave reporter communicating with a whistle blower to expose government corruption and it has nothing to do with the 1st amendment. And Reason beclowns itself once again by publishing this crap.

    2. That’s not what the courts say – there was the case of a TV crew filming a Cops-type show who barged into a house where a guy had called 911 because he was having a heart attack and wouldn’t leave when the guy’s wife told them to get out, the ensuing lawsuit was dismissed on the grounds that the public has a right to know what their public servants are up to and the right of the press to follow the cops around outweighs your property rights insofar as telling trespassers to get off your property is concerned. (I would not suggest you try exercising your “public right to know” rights by wandering into a random police action, however, because you’re going to get your ass kicked and the courts are going to develop a case of amnesia as far as remembering they’ve ever said there’s a public right to know.)

      And then there’s Chris Cuomo who warned people that going on Wikileaks and looking at the stolen Podesta e-mails was a crime, but that as a reporter he had “special powers” so he could look at them and tell you what was in them. (Spoiler alert: There was absolutely nothing in the e-mails that was of any concern whatsoever so you needn’t even think about them ever.)

      1. There are dozens of people who video police in action. Go to Youtube and search “first amendment audit”. Also look up Turner v Driver.

        1. Do they do it in the home of an unrelated 3rd party?

      2. The Podesta emails were the most damning indictment of the press that we have all just decided to forget about.

      3. I’m not sure what case you’re referring too, but SCOTUS ruled in Wilson v Lane that police can’t allow film crews to barge into people’s houses.

        And of course Cuomo’s claim was fake news.

      4. “And then there’s Chris Cuomo who warned people that going on Wikileaks and looking at the stolen Podesta e-mails was a crime, but that as a reporter he had “special powers” so he could look at them and tell you what was in them.”

        Who was the talking head who brandished a handgun on DC TV after they had been outlawed, but claimed it was OK for hims, since he was ‘special’?

  3. A question for Robby and the other Reason writers who have been plugging the importance of an adversarial press:

    The relationship between the press and the presidency has certainly become more adversarial since Trump took office. Do you believe the quality of coverage of the Trump presidency has been better than Obama’s and what aspects of it do you think have improved or declined?

    1. Obviously way better, since the reporting during 2008-16 amounted to a press on their knees with their mouth open wide, eagerly awaiting their opportunity to show their appreciation of the Lightworker.

  4. *Barfs*

  5. He probably leaked Law & Order scripts to her, too. The bastard.

  6. Do we care if reporters are sleeping with sources? Doesn’t that make it easier for them to get background details and stuff that otherwise might not come out – even if they can’t use that material directly it can inform them of where to look/who to talk to. Parallel construction is rightly forbidden to the government, not the rest of us.

    1. The other side of this, is it a good idea for government officials to trade illegal information leaks for young pussy?

      1. Obviously yes. What a stupid question. Hang your head in shame, asshole

        1. This is what I like about libertarians, they don’t mince words. Their words often don’t evince much thought or reflection, but they never mince them.

          1. Gargle my balls, you distended rectum of moronosity.

            1. This is why libertarians can’t have nice things like sane presidential candidates or a chance to present their views in public without being laughed at.

      2. It’s a good idea because it looks like it works.

      3. The other other side to it is, why is so much government information secret?
        Of course the state will make it a crime to publicize their dirty little secrets. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be made public.

        1. It doesn’t mean they should either. Judging this case on the particulars, it looks like an illegal leak and not whistleblowing or other information that needs to be released to the public.

      4. Obviously it wasn’t for these two. He’s being prosecuted and she’s been outed to the world as a whore.

      5. Yes. Given that the vast majority of government secrets shouldn’t be secret in the first place as they’re secret only to protect someone’s career or career goals and rarely involve actual danger to our people or operations.

        I’m willing to accept the miniscule chance that some Anthony Weiner wannabe will tattle something important to his underage Russian honeypot.

  7. I’m amazed at where we are going with this.

    Europe and China started this mess by insisting that internet giants censor content they don’t like, but it was the US political left that picked up that ball and pushed home partisan social media “optimizations”.

    Now they are seeing the second round of these implementations suck them out of being “common carriers” and into taking editorial responsibility for the content on their networks.

    This is a huge change that puts their very existence in jeopardy – all for partisan political purposes.

    Now that they are proudly editing for content, it is only a matter of time before libel suits start targeting those deep pockets. And it is only the largess of the courts that will protect them from liability going forward, because they are undoubtedly exercising editorial control over the content.

  8. Well, most real people would prefer an accurate and truthful press to an adversarial one.
    You know, named, reliable, verifiable sources. Actual research, not a quick social media scan.
    ‘Fact checking’ that used facts, not just more forms of the same fantasy.
    Acceptance of the fact that the press is not an anointed class, but are citizens with no more power then all of us.
    And of course, a promise to use their magical powers only for good.

    1. Now that is just crazy talk

    2. How about just tell me what happened and I’ll decide if it was good or not.

      1. Pfft. You are a non-Ivy, non -Kennedy School of Govt educated rube living somewhere between Malibu and The Upper East Side who couldn’t possibly decide for yourself what is “good” for you or anyone else. You need your betters to shape that narrative for you

    3. I echo those sentiments

    4. If you demand only on-the-record named sources, then all that will ever be reported is the ‘party line’ so to speak.
      Do you want to know what’s *really* going on, or not?

      1. Rand Paul goes on the record and against the party line all the time.

  9. Yes, the Feds spying on a reporter is very concerning.

    But last I checked, the Times put itself out there as having some mad investigative skilz, so if they’re concerned about it, well, they can check it out, and put the real crime on the front page.

    That’s a piece I might even read.

    1. Why more concerning than spying on everyone else?

      1. It does not seem, in this case, they are spying on everyone. They were looking for leaks on an investigative commitee. Now, even I, who is generally in favor of open government, have a problem with leaking from an investigative commitee.

        The investigative commitee is looking into crimes and collecting evidence much as a prosecutor would. It is likely crippling to the investigation to publish what they have and who they are looking at. Further, it can be damaging to the innocent, since there are surely some allegations against an innocent that will be disproved in the course of the investigation.

        Both the aide, and his honeypot should be in jail.

  10. “Ignore the Salaciousness of the Ali Watkins Affair.”

    Yeah, that’s gonna happen.

  11. Who is Ali Watkins and what did she do with Salatzo?

    1. Probably allowed him to leak all over her.

  12. Does not a reporter having an affair with a government official kind of compromise an adversarial relationship with the government?

    Is Soave asserting some kind of right to leak? Because I don’t think that is going to fly.

  13. “Ignore the salaciousness of the Ali Watkins affair.”

    Right. Because there’s nothing in the slightest bit worrisome about people using sex to obtain classified information.

    Dear God, Reason, does anyone there even read these headlines before they are posted?

  14. “Jeffrey A. Rambo, a Customs and Border Protection agent stationed in California”

    Why would a customs agent — a glorified mall cop — be responsible for or permitted to conduct surveillance of any reporter?

    1. I suspect it was not, and was not supposed to have the information. He should be in line for disciplinary action … maybe jail time. The story said he was NOT supposed to be working on the case.

  15. “She’s a talented reporter, and deserves the chance to learn from this experience.”

    How talented exactly, eh? Hm?

  16. But there’s an issue here that’s much more important than two consenting adults carrying on an ill-advised affair: the behavior of federal prosecutors, who obtained Watkins’ emails and very clearly spied on her in service of a dubious war on leakers.

    Love affair? You must be kidding. Watkins prostituted herself in return for secret government information from government employees. Of course prosecutors should investigate such conduct.

    1. “Watkins prostituted herself in return for secret government information”

      As any good reported would have done.

  17. There is too damn much government info that is secret. Personally I am in favor of making as much of it public as possible, with only a very few very rare exceptions.

    1. Again, this case has defendants and a grand jury involved, it would easily fall into one of the exceptions. No defendant should have the investigations details made public before the case is tried, if for no other reason than because it could prejudice the case. Every reaonable protection should be afforded the accused.

  18. Sorry, Robby, but this is definitely about a guy with a security clearance who sold it for sex, and the media prostitute who would at the very least stoop to selling sex for a scoop.

  19. Code name “Deep Throat” already taken

    1. “Deep Troat” isn’t.

  20. If there’s any constitutional right I’d surrender without a second thought, it would be freedom of the press. At least in countries with no such right, the fact that the press is a propaganda outlet is well understood and transparent to the public.

    Freedom of the press has nothing to do with protecting the rights of individuals, and has arguably enabled a public menace.

    Exactly what individual right is enabled by a free press? The right to have a self-inrested, unelected and unaccountable institution wielding influence contrary to your interests?

    1. Ever wonder why you are so disaffected or why your positions have been casualties of American progress throughout your lifetime?

    2. For first amendment purposes, the press is not an institution, it is an activity: the dissemination of information. A zit-faced 18 year old virgin typing a blog in his pajamas in his mother’s basement has the same constitutional protections as the chief editor of the New York Times wearing a $5000 suit in his penthouse office.

  21. Is it a general libertarian position that any appearance of government overreach supersedes gross ethics violations from members of the press or is this just Mr. Soave’s position?

    Mr. Wolfe, the former Director of Security of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) was being investigated by the FBI for allegedly unauthorized disclosures of classified information to reporters and two counts of making false statements to a government agency. Ms. Watkins, a national security correspondent who covered the Senate Inteligence Committee for 4 1/2 years, was involved an intimate sexual relationship with Mr. Wolfe for 4 years during which time she published dozens of articles regarding the activities of the SSCI.

    Would it not follow that the government had an interest to determine, through subpoena of communications records, whether any unauthorized disclosures were exchanged between Ms. Watkins and Mr. Wolfe? Exactly what does Mr. Soave believe should be “ignored” here?

    1. Mr Soave knows he can’t follow Dave Weigel’s post-Reason meteoric career trajectory if he refrains from defending so-called journalists.

  22. I am shocked, SHOCKED, I tell you, to find out that Trump is doing the same thing as Obama did. Not that it will make much difference to the liberals. Obama = good, Trump = bad, even if it’s the very same action.

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