NEW YORK (CBS News/CBSLA) — The New York Times says it’s reviewing the work history of reporter Ali Watkins, whose email and phone records were seized by prosecutors examining whether government secrets were leaked.
News organizations and activists have questioned the propriety of the Justice Department seeking this information from Watkins.
The Times is looking into Watkins’ ties to James Wolfe, ex-security director for the Senate intelligence committee. He’s been indicted on three false statement counts after prosecutors say he misled investigators about his relationships with reporters.
The newspaper says Watkins disclosed she had a personal relationship with Wolfe when she was hired, and that Wolfe hadn’t provided her with government information when they were together.
In an apparent case of life imitating art, Watkins back in 2013 tweeted about her affinity for Zoe Barnes, the “House Of Cards” reporter formerly played by Kate Mara. In the HBO series, Barnes leveraged her relationship with Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) to gain access to inside information in order to advance her career before she was ultimately killed by Underwood.
Before joining the Times, Watkins worked for Politico, BuzzFeed, the Huffington Post and McClatchy.
In June 2017, just after she had been hired by Politico, someone else who said he was a government agent approached her and mentioned Wolfe, according to the Times. He reportedly offered to be a source for her and the two set up a meeting. During that meeting, he told her he knew about her relationship with Wolfe, and then he asked her to help expose government leakers and the journalists they work with, the Times reported.
The Washington Post reported Tuesday that the identity of the man who met with Watkins was Jeffrey Rambo, who is a Customs and Border Protection agent. During Rambo’s meeting with Watkins, he told her he knew about overseas trips she had taken with Wolfe, giving her the correct dates and locales, which “rattled” her. The Post also reported that Rambo had with him information about Wolfe, his current wife and his ex-wife.
It is the FBI, and not CBP, that usually investigates national security leaks. This, along with his unusual approach to Watkins, raised concerns with CBP, which told CBS News that it “takes all allegations of employee misconduct seriously,” and it had referred the matter to CBP’s Office of Professional Responsibility.
James Wolfe, former director of security for the Senate Intelligence Committee, walks out from the Washington FBI Field Office after being processed on June 11, 2018 in Washington, DC. Wolfe was arrested last week on federal charges for leaking committee information to reporters. (Photo credit: Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Watkins told her supervisors at Politico about the interaction. This, the Times says, was the first time she had revealed a personal relationship with Wolfe. She continued to report on the Senate Intelligence Committee for Politico until she accepted a job with the Times. She was, Politico told the Times, “managed accordingly once that disclosure was made.”
The move by prosecutors at the Justice Department to seize Ms. Watkins’s email and phone records was the first known instance of the Trump administration pursuing a journalist’s private communications. The Committee to Protect Journalists called the move “a fundamental threat to press freedom,” and First Amendment lawyers expressed concern about a government crackdown on journalists.
CBS News’ Julia Kimani Burnham contributed to this report.
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