Ali Watkins, Washington, D.C.-based national security reporter for the New York Times, will receive a fresh start in the paper’s New York office after leaks revealed she maintained a three-year relationship with a top Senate Intelligence Committee aide, whose work she covered.
The revelation, acknowledged by the Times last month, emerged after the government seized 26-year-old Watkins’ phone and email communications earlier this year in relation to an investigation into James Wolfe’s handling of classified documents. Watkins dated Wolfe, 30 years her senior and married. He was arrested and charged with lying to the FBI about his contact with three reporters, including Watkins, the Times reported.
Watkins joined the Times in December 2017, after the end of her romance with Wolfe. Prior to that, she had written on federal law enforcement for several other outlets, including HuffPost, BuzzFeed, and Politico. According to her and the Times” official statements following an internal review, she had divulged to “some [former] editors” “some aspects” of her liaison with Wolfe.
“I respect and understand the Times’ review and agree that I should have handled aspects of my past relationships and disclosures differently,” Watkins said in a Times statement. “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.”
While the Times’ executive editor, Dean Baquet, said “we are troubled by Ali’s conduct” in a newsroom memo, he also expressed confidence in Watkins’ faculties to rise to the “highest standards” the paper expects from its journalists.
“We are giving Ali an opportunity to show that she can live up to them. I believe she can,” Baquet said. “I also believe that the Times must be a humane place that can allow for second chances when there are mitigating circumstances.”
The allaying context includes Watkins’ previous editors’ inability to steer the budding journalist away from her unethical behavior after her disclosures, the extent of which is unknown.
Baquet said, “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.”
He also added that the Times bears some of the responsibility, as during the hiring process Watkins shared “aspects of her past relationships to some editors.” As a result, the paper intends to overhaul its candidate screening procedures.
Watkins’ relationship with Wolfe, with whom she discussed Capitol Hill policies, and a subsequent brief overture with another member of the Intelligence Committee shocked newsrooms, who deplored sex for information as well as the Times’ coverage of the matter.
“That story hung a 26-year-old young woman out to dry,” Jill Abramson, former Times executive editor, told The Daily Beast last week. “It was unimaginable to me what the pain must be like for her.”
Watkins’ also experienced government harassment, some of her colleagues and friends averred. The Times stated that on one occasion, in a bar, a Custom and Border Protection officer confronted Watkins about her private travel records.
Watkins soared to journalistic fame as a 22-year-old intern with McClatchy Newspapers, where her work rose to the finalist list for a Pulitzer Prize.