Mata Hari journalism? Veteran Senate Intelligence Committee staffer, in romantic relationship with NYT reporter, arrested in probe of leaks

James A. Wolfe, former director of security for the Senate Intelligence Committee, lost everything when he was arrested by the FBI last night.  A review of media reports on the background of the arrest suggests that the lure of romance with a nubile female journalism school student was his undoing.

This is a story with at least two compelling themes: the apparent betrayal of national security by a veteran Senate staffer and the rise in a mere four years of a comely female reporter in a romantic relationship with Wolfe from unpaid undergraduate intern at McClatchy to the lofty post of New York Times national security correspondent.


Ali Watkins's picture, used on her Twitter account.

The indictment of Wolfe indicates that lying to the FBI about his relationship with Ms. Watkins (REPORTER #2 in the indictment) is the basis for the arrest.  It outlines the genesis of the relationship and the meteoric rise of Ms. Watkins from journalism major to a prestigious beat at the New York Times:

13. During in or around 2013 and in or around 2014, REPORTER #2 was an undergraduate student serving as an intern with a news service [McClatchy] in Washington, D.C.

14. In approximately December 2013, WOLFE and REPORTER #2 began a personal relationship that continued until in or around December 2017.

15. From in or around mid-2014 through in or around December 2017, REPORTER #2 was employed in Washington, D.C. by several different news organizations covering national security matters, including matters relating to the SSCI. During this period, REPORTER #2 published dozens of news articles about SSCI and its activities.

Watkins went from an intern at McClatchy to BuzzFeed, where she made a big name for herself with this story of April 3, 2017.  The tone is apparent from the lead paragraphs:

A former campaign adviser for Donald Trump met with and passed documents to a Russian intelligence operative in New York City in 2013.

The adviser, Carter Page, met with a Russian intelligence operative named Victor Podobnyy, who was later charged by the US government alongside two others for acting as unregistered agents of a foreign government.  The charges, filed in January 2015, came after federal investigators busted a Russian spy ring that was seeking information on US sanctions as well as efforts to develop alternative energy.  Page is an energy consultant.

She went from BuzzFeed to Politico, and then, in December 2017, to national security correspondent of the New York Times.

The indictment continues:

16. From in or around mid-2014 through in or around December 2017, WOLFE and REPORTER #2 exchanged tens of thousands of electronic communications, often including daily texts and phone calls, and they frequently met in person at a variety of locations including Hart Senate Office Building stairwells, restaurants, and REPORTER #2's apartment.  WOLFE and REPORTER #2 also communicated with each other through encrypted cell phone applications[.]

The account in today's New York Times describes the dramatic events that unfolded as the FBI moved in and contacted Ms. Watkins.  It was in December 2017 that the FBI first contacted Ms. Watkins:

Shortly before she began working at The Times, Ms. Watkins was approached by the F.B.I. agents, who asserted that Mr. Wolfe had helped her with articles while they were dating.  She did not answer their questions.  Mr. Wolfe was not a source of classified information for Ms. Watkins during their relationship, she said [to the NYT, apparently].  That same month, F.B.I. agents asked Mr. Wolfe about an article written by Ms. Watkins.  He denied knowing the reporter's sources.

Wolfe abruptly ended his 30 years of service with the  Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in December 2017, as the investigation moved into gear.

A prosecutor notified Ms. Watkins on Feb. 13 that the Justice Department had years of customer records and subscriber information from telecommunications companies, including Google and Verizon, for two email accounts and a phone number of hers.  Investigators did not obtain the content of the messages themselves.

The records covered years' worth of Ms. Watkins's communications before she joined The Times in December 2017 to cover federal law enforcement.  During a seven-month period last year for which prosecutors sought additional phone records, she worked for BuzzFeed News and then Politico reporting on national security.

There is much indignation today on the part of journalists over the FBI monitoring the communications of a reporter.  Recall that James Rosen of Fox News was subjected to similar monitoring during the Obama years, resulting in no charges against him.  The Times complains:

News media advocates consider the idea of mining a journalist's records for sources to be an intrusion on First Amendment freedoms, and prosecutors acknowledge it is one of the most delicate steps the Justice Department can take.  "Freedom of the press is a cornerstone of democracy, and communications between journalists and their sources demand protection," said Eileen Murphy, a Times spokeswoman.

Ms. Watkins's personal lawyer, Mark J. MacDougall, said: "It's always disconcerting when a journalist's telephone records are obtained by the Justice Department – through a grand jury subpoena or other legal process.  Whether it was really necessary here will depend on the nature of the investigation and the scope of any charges."

The Times account continues, apparently indicating that her previous employers, like the New York Times, knew that she was in a personal relationship with a source leaking confidential information, which sounds to me like a Mata Hari strategy of journalism:

Ms. Watkins said she told editors at BuzzFeed News and Politico about it and continued to cover national security, including the committee's work.  Ben Smith, the editor in chief of BuzzFeed News, said in a statement, "We're deeply troubled by what looks like a case of law enforcement interfering with a reporter's constitutional right to gather information about her own government."

The predicate for the arrest was Wolfe's response to an investigative questionnaire from the FBI:

d. Question 9 of the investigative Questionnaire asked "Have you had any contact with" any of those three reporters.  As to each reporter, WOLFE stated and checked "No."

e. Question 10 of the Investigative Questionnaire asked, "Besides [the three named reporters], do you currently have or had any contact with any other reporters (professional, official, personal)?"  Before answering this question, WOLFE stated orally to the FBI agents that although he had no official or professional contact with reporters, he saw reporters every day, and so to "feel comfortable" he would check "Yes."  He did so, and initialed this answer.

f. Question 10 of the Investigative Questionnaire further asked, "If yes, who and describe the relationship (professional, official, personal)."  In the space provided, WOLFE hand wrote "Official - No" and "Professional - No."  WOLFE then orally volunteered that he certainly did not talk to reporters about anything SSCl-related.  FBI agents orally asked WOLFE if he had traveled intonationally [sic] with any reporter, gone to a baseball game or to the movies with a reporter, or had weekly or regular electronic 3 4 communication with a reporter.  To each question WOLFE verbally responded 'No."  WOLFE then wrote "Personal - No" on the investigative Questionnaire.

g. Question 11 of the investigative Questionnaire asked, "If yes to question ten, did you discuss or disclose any official U.S. government information or documents whether classified or unclassified which is the property of the U.S. government without express authorization from the owner of the information?"  WOLFE stated and checked "No" and initialed this answer.

h. WOLFE signed and dated the Investigative Questionnaire next to the following warning: "I declare under penalty of perjury under the laws of the United States of America that the foregoing is true and correct."

And here is the trap that the FBI sprang on him last December:

8. On or about December 15, 2017, after WOLFE signed the Investigative Questionnaire, the FBI agents asked WOLFE about an article written by REPORTER #2 that contained information that had been provided to the SSCi [sic] by the Executive Branch for official purposes.  WOLFE denied knowing about the reporter's sources for the article.  After WOLFE stated that he did not know about REPORTER #2's sources, FBI agents confronted WOLFE with pictures showing WOLFE together with REPORTER #2.  After being confronted, WOLFE admitted to the FBI agents that he had lied to them, and that he had engaged in a personal relationship with REPORTER #2 since 2014, but maintained that he (WOLFE) had never disclosed to REPORTER #2 classified information or information that he learned as Director of Security for the SSCI that was not otherwise publicly available.  WOLFE also stated that he never provided REPORTER #2 with news leads[,] intelligence, or information about non-public SSCI matters. 9.

In addition to Ms. Watkins, three other reporters are alleged by the indictment to have received leaks from Wolfe.

This story has all the elements of a compelling drama, one that does not appear congenial to the major media.  Watching the way this plays out will be one thread in what promises to be a summer of major revelations, including the release next week of the DOJ inspector general's report.

Today, as NPR reports:

Wolfe, who is from Ellicott City, Md., was expected to appear in court on Friday, prosecutors said, but the AP says it was not immediately clear if he has retained a lawyer.  He faces five years on each count of lying to the FBI, but if convicted, is reportedly likely to serve only a small portion of that time.

Especially if he agrees to testify and incriminate others.

James A. Wolfe, former director of security for the Senate Intelligence Committee, lost everything when he was arrested by the FBI last night.  A review of media reports on the background of the arrest suggests that the lure of romance with a nubile female journalism school student was his undoing.

This is a story with at least two compelling themes: the apparent betrayal of national security by a veteran Senate staffer and the rise in a mere four years of a comely female reporter in a romantic relationship with Wolfe from unpaid undergraduate intern at McClatchy to the lofty post of New York Times national security correspondent.


Ali Watkins's picture, used on her Twitter account.

The indictment of Wolfe indicates that lying to the FBI about his relationship with Ms. Watkins (REPORTER #2 in the indictment) is the basis for the arrest.  It outlines the genesis of the relationship and the meteoric rise of Ms. Watkins from journalism major to a prestigious beat at the New York Times:

13. During in or around 2013 and in or around 2014, REPORTER #2 was an undergraduate student serving as an intern with a news service [McClatchy] in Washington, D.C.

14. In approximately December 2013, WOLFE and REPORTER #2 began a personal relationship that continued until in or around December 2017.

15. From in or around mid-2014 through in or around December 2017, REPORTER #2 was employed in Washington, D.C. by several different news organizations covering national security matters, including matters relating to the SSCI. During this period, REPORTER #2 published dozens of news articles about SSCI and its activities.

Watkins went from an intern at McClatchy to BuzzFeed, where she made a big name for herself with this story of April 3, 2017.  The tone is apparent from the lead paragraphs:

A former campaign adviser for Donald Trump met with and passed documents to a Russian intelligence operative in New York City in 2013.

The adviser, Carter Page, met with a Russian intelligence operative named Victor Podobnyy, who was later charged by the US government alongside two others for acting as unregistered agents of a foreign government.  The charges, filed in January 2015, came after federal investigators busted a Russian spy ring that was seeking information on US sanctions as well as efforts to develop alternative energy.  Page is an energy consultant.

She went from BuzzFeed to Politico, and then, in December 2017, to national security correspondent of the New York Times.

The indictment continues:

16. From in or around mid-2014 through in or around December 2017, WOLFE and REPORTER #2 exchanged tens of thousands of electronic communications, often including daily texts and phone calls, and they frequently met in person at a variety of locations including Hart Senate Office Building stairwells, restaurants, and REPORTER #2's apartment.  WOLFE and REPORTER #2 also communicated with each other through encrypted cell phone applications[.]

The account in today's New York Times describes the dramatic events that unfolded as the FBI moved in and contacted Ms. Watkins.  It was in December 2017 that the FBI first contacted Ms. Watkins:

Shortly before she began working at The Times, Ms. Watkins was approached by the F.B.I. agents, who asserted that Mr. Wolfe had helped her with articles while they were dating.  She did not answer their questions.  Mr. Wolfe was not a source of classified information for Ms. Watkins during their relationship, she said [to the NYT, apparently].  That same month, F.B.I. agents asked Mr. Wolfe about an article written by Ms. Watkins.  He denied knowing the reporter's sources.

Wolfe abruptly ended his 30 years of service with the  Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in December 2017, as the investigation moved into gear.

A prosecutor notified Ms. Watkins on Feb. 13 that the Justice Department had years of customer records and subscriber information from telecommunications companies, including Google and Verizon, for two email accounts and a phone number of hers.  Investigators did not obtain the content of the messages themselves.

The records covered years' worth of Ms. Watkins's communications before she joined The Times in December 2017 to cover federal law enforcement.  During a seven-month period last year for which prosecutors sought additional phone records, she worked for BuzzFeed News and then Politico reporting on national security.

There is much indignation today on the part of journalists over the FBI monitoring the communications of a reporter.  Recall that James Rosen of Fox News was subjected to similar monitoring during the Obama years, resulting in no charges against him.  The Times complains:

News media advocates consider the idea of mining a journalist's records for sources to be an intrusion on First Amendment freedoms, and prosecutors acknowledge it is one of the most delicate steps the Justice Department can take.  "Freedom of the press is a cornerstone of democracy, and communications between journalists and their sources demand protection," said Eileen Murphy, a Times spokeswoman.

Ms. Watkins's personal lawyer, Mark J. MacDougall, said: "It's always disconcerting when a journalist's telephone records are obtained by the Justice Department – through a grand jury subpoena or other legal process.  Whether it was really necessary here will depend on the nature of the investigation and the scope of any charges."

The Times account continues, apparently indicating that her previous employers, like the New York Times, knew that she was in a personal relationship with a source leaking confidential information, which sounds to me like a Mata Hari strategy of journalism:

Ms. Watkins said she told editors at BuzzFeed News and Politico about it and continued to cover national security, including the committee's work.  Ben Smith, the editor in chief of BuzzFeed News, said in a statement, "We're deeply troubled by what looks like a case of law enforcement interfering with a reporter's constitutional right to gather information about her own government."

The predicate for the arrest was Wolfe's response to an investigative questionnaire from the FBI:

d. Question 9 of the investigative Questionnaire asked "Have you had any contact with" any of those three reporters.  As to each reporter, WOLFE stated and checked "No."

e. Question 10 of the Investigative Questionnaire asked, "Besides [the three named reporters], do you currently have or had any contact with any other reporters (professional, official, personal)?"  Before answering this question, WOLFE stated orally to the FBI agents that although he had no official or professional contact with reporters, he saw reporters every day, and so to "feel comfortable" he would check "Yes."  He did so, and initialed this answer.

f. Question 10 of the Investigative Questionnaire further asked, "If yes, who and describe the relationship (professional, official, personal)."  In the space provided, WOLFE hand wrote "Official - No" and "Professional - No."  WOLFE then orally volunteered that he certainly did not talk to reporters about anything SSCl-related.  FBI agents orally asked WOLFE if he had traveled intonationally [sic] with any reporter, gone to a baseball game or to the movies with a reporter, or had weekly or regular electronic 3 4 communication with a reporter.  To each question WOLFE verbally responded 'No."  WOLFE then wrote "Personal - No" on the investigative Questionnaire.

g. Question 11 of the investigative Questionnaire asked, "If yes to question ten, did you discuss or disclose any official U.S. government information or documents whether classified or unclassified which is the property of the U.S. government without express authorization from the owner of the information?"  WOLFE stated and checked "No" and initialed this answer.

h. WOLFE signed and dated the Investigative Questionnaire next to the following warning: "I declare under penalty of perjury under the laws of the United States of America that the foregoing is true and correct."

And here is the trap that the FBI sprang on him last December:

8. On or about December 15, 2017, after WOLFE signed the Investigative Questionnaire, the FBI agents asked WOLFE about an article written by REPORTER #2 that contained information that had been provided to the SSCi [sic] by the Executive Branch for official purposes.  WOLFE denied knowing about the reporter's sources for the article.  After WOLFE stated that he did not know about REPORTER #2's sources, FBI agents confronted WOLFE with pictures showing WOLFE together with REPORTER #2.  After being confronted, WOLFE admitted to the FBI agents that he had lied to them, and that he had engaged in a personal relationship with REPORTER #2 since 2014, but maintained that he (WOLFE) had never disclosed to REPORTER #2 classified information or information that he learned as Director of Security for the SSCI that was not otherwise publicly available.  WOLFE also stated that he never provided REPORTER #2 with news leads[,] intelligence, or information about non-public SSCI matters. 9.

In addition to Ms. Watkins, three other reporters are alleged by the indictment to have received leaks from Wolfe.

This story has all the elements of a compelling drama, one that does not appear congenial to the major media.  Watching the way this plays out will be one thread in what promises to be a summer of major revelations, including the release next week of the DOJ inspector general's report.

Today, as NPR reports:

Wolfe, who is from Ellicott City, Md., was expected to appear in court on Friday, prosecutors said, but the AP says it was not immediately clear if he has retained a lawyer.  He faces five years on each count of lying to the FBI, but if convicted, is reportedly likely to serve only a small portion of that time.

Especially if he agrees to testify and incriminate others.