The New York Times announced on July 3 that it will be moving one of its Washington journalists to New York, after she kept quiet about communications later seized by the Department of Justice (DOJ) as part of a probe into leaks of classified information to the press.
Times reporter Ali Watkins, 26, didn’t tell The New York Times for almost four months that the DOJ had alerted her that it had obtained some of her email and phone records as part of an investigation into leaks by a former security staffer, James Wolfe, 57.
In a memo to colleagues, Executive Editor Dean Baquet also said the paper didn’t look fondly on a romantic relationship Watkins had had with Wolfe, who was the director of security for the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, which she was covering.
Watkins started a relationship with Wolfe in October 2013, when she was a 22-year-old undergrad at Temple University covering the intelligence committee as an intern at the Washington-based McClatchy Newspapers. Their relationship lasted three years, spanning her tenure at publications like The Huffington Post, Politico, and Buzzfeed News, but ended before she joined the Times, she told the publication.
Wolfe was arrested and indicted last month for lying to the FBI about leaks he made to the press. As director of security, Wolfe had access to confidential information that the indictment alleges he leaked to at least four reporters. While Watkins wasn’t named in the indictment, The New York Times has said she was one of the four, although she denies ever using Wolfe as a source.
Wolfe was interviewed in October and December last year, but the indictment was sealed until June 7.
Shortly after the indictment was made public, the newspaper announced it was investigating Watkins’s reporting, after she came clean about the DOJ’s access to her private communications. It also said it was investigating how her relationship with Wolfe might have affected her reporting.
“We are troubled by Ali’s conduct, particularly while she was employed by other news organizations. For a reporter to have an intimate relationship with someone he or she covers is unacceptable,” Baquet said in his memo, adding that it goes against the paper’s standards.
He acknowledged that she had disclosed her former relationship to the newspaper, but he said it was not given the attention it warranted. Going forward, Baquet said, “we also intend to tighten our job candidate screening process to ensure that significant questions make their way to the newsroom leadership for full discussion—which did not happen in this case.”
Watkins said she stopped dating Wolfe before she started working at The New York Times (although friends said she dated another staff member at the intelligence committee afterward) and that she disclosed the relationship to her editors at other publications to varying degrees. In none of her other jobs was she assigned to another beat.
In his memo, Baquet said that no one had “challenged the accuracy of her reporting” and thus he had decided to give Watkins a second chance because he believed that “the Times must be a humane place that can allow for second chances.” Her new beat in New York has not yet been announced, but Baquet said she would be “closely supervised” by a senior mentor there.
“I respect and understand the Times’s review and agree that I should have handled aspects of my past relationships and disclosures differently,” Watkins wrote in a statement to the newspaper. “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 she may have kept her job, this is likely not the end of the story.