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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