The pearl bracelet arrived in May 2014...
June 25, 2018 10:29 AM   Subscribe

How Reporter’s Affair With a Senate Aide Rattled the Media. The seizure of email records from a Times reporter alarmed First Amendment groups. Her relationship with an intelligence aide set off an ethical debate. (SLNYT by Michael M. Grynbaum, Scott Shane and Emily Flitter)
posted by crazy with stars (14 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
It goes from "oh this was a really bad decision" to "this is journalistic honeypotting" the moment she decides to date another member of the intel committee staff after breaking up with Wolfe.

This is malpractice, no matter how good the dirt was.
posted by turntraitor at 11:57 AM on June 25, 2018 [2 favorites]

What bugged me about this article was how, at the end, it's unclear whether the Valentine's Day chocolates were from the second committee staff member Watkins dated, or whether this was a third "Washington national security veteran"—and if the latter, what that person's actual job was (which is relevant, in light of everything else).

I also don't like the throwaway line, "Ms. Bumiller did not inform other top newsroom leaders of the relationship," which sort of pointedly doesn't mention whether this violated company policy. This is a gray area, because I recognize the article is trying to report the facts without delving too far into the ethical issues; but I think the line makes Bumiller's conduct unclear.
posted by cribcage at 12:10 PM on June 25, 2018 [1 favorite]

I had very mixed reactions to this article.

1. Watkins comes across as walking a very fine ethical line in maybe-maybe not sleeping with sources.

2. Why is this article about Watkins' ethics and not those of Wolfe, who was in a sensitive position dealing with classified information, married, and fucking a woman half his age? There should be ten times the hand-wringing over his ethics because he is using his job to hit on young women and making himself vulnerable to blackmail.
posted by medusa at 1:15 PM on June 25, 2018 [52 favorites]

Right. That story left the actual ethical issues completely unclear. Watkins' position is that the men she dated were not sources, at which point I don't think she did anything unethical at all (although she may have violated her employer's policy, but there's no way to know if she did without someone clearly describing the policy). But of course the seizure of records and the whole fuss are kind of inexplicable unless she was using boyfriends as sources, which seems like the sort of thing that could have happened, but I didn't see any clear claim that it did.

And further, even if it did happen? There are levels of unethical. Publishing something that a romantic partner told you seems ethically questionable, but not therapist-sleeping-with-a-client unethical, more sort of sketchy behavior and probably against her employer's policies. If anyone was a directly injured party by that kind of lapse, it'd be Wolfe, as the romantic partner, and he's not complaining.
posted by LizardBreath at 1:49 PM on June 25, 2018 [2 favorites]

It might be her position that she wasn't using him as a source, but the FBI has quotes from his text messages to her that include stuff like "I always tried to give you as much information that I could and to do the right thing with it so you could get that scoop before anyone else", so they do have some evidence that he was giving her non-public information.

Overall the indictment just makes Wolfe look incredibly stupid, as he signs an affidavit in an interview with FBI agents affirming that he absolutely did not know Watkins (or two other reporters) and then immediately has them show him a picture of the two of them, leading to an confession to multiple crimes. Don't lie to the FBI, especially when you're being led into an extremely obvious trap like this. How hard did he think the FBI was going to have to look to find out that he'd lied? It's not like he was trying that hard to keep anything secret. It is, in some ways, bullshit that pretty much any lying to the FBI can get you sent to prison, but A) these were not immaterial lies but central to the investigation they were conducting and B) he fucking worked with the FBI on a daily basis, and it can't possibly have been news to him that he was committing a crime.

Also don't date someone 30 years younger, especially in a creepy way where you're giving unsolicited Valentine's Day cards and pearl bracelets to an intern.
posted by Copronymus at 2:30 PM on June 25, 2018 [9 favorites]

This has been a problem with the NYTimes before, right? I remember a real hit-job kind of piece posted in NYRB (?) or something which was a brutal takedown of Judith Miller after the whole Iraq War WMD stenography that Judith Miller was cheerleading. One allegation that stuck out to me from that piece, was that Judith Miller was romantically involved with Les Aspin when Aspin was the head of the Defense Committee (in the 1980's I think), and she basically made her career on scoops she got during that time.

If this was true, how the hell did NYTimes not already have a policy in place so this does not happen again?
posted by indianbadger1 at 2:47 PM on June 25, 2018 [4 favorites]

“People all across Washington are in all sorts of various relationships,” Ryan Grim, Ms. Watkins’s former editor at The Huffington Post, said in an interview. “You manage it, you put up walls, but you can’t pretend that you’re not human. Ali is a great reporter and I trust her judgment.”

“What I see is the Trump administration seizing a reporter’s records and tricking the press into writing about her sex life,” added Mr. Grim, who is now the Washington bureau chief of The Intercept. “It’s appalling what the Trump administration is doing and I don’t think you should enable it.”
After finishing the rest of the article, I'm inclined to agree with this. I think the real story is this:
Over drinks at a Dupont Circle bar, the man quizzed Ms. Watkins about her sources on a story about Russian espionage. 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.
So an agent of CBP, the law enforcement agency most fiercely loyal to Trump and Trumpism, shows up D.C. to investigate a journalist, without the knowledge of the FBI whose jurisdiction this would normally be, compiles a list of information on her recent travels (possibly using illegally-obtained information? Did he have a warrant to get those records on a U.S. citizen? Does CBP's exemption from following the Fourth Amendment extend even that far?), and uses this to threaten her career, essentially blackmailing her to give up information on her sources. And people want to talk about the reporter's ethics? Why the hell is the press not screaming bloody murder about this? This is blatantly fascist. The Trump administration is moving the functions of law enforcement from relatively unbiased agencies (and I'm aware of the irony in calling the FBI "relatively unbiased") to agencies more supportive of him and his agenda, to make an end-run around the ethics and norms of established law enforcement, and persecute political opponents.

Ali Watkins sounds like a journalist who has made some questionable decisions but seems to have done the right thing in managing them, and that's a matter between her and her employers. James Wolfe sounds like a skeeve who should probably be investigated for inappropriate behavior towards young female colleagues, and maybe should lose his security clearance. But Jeffrey Rambo sounds like a fucking brownshirt-in-waiting, who could only have done what he did with the support of numerous others like him. Maybe the press should focus on the existential threat to the republic, instead of something that vaguely looks like a sex scandal if you squint at it.
posted by biogeo at 5:13 PM on June 25, 2018 [34 favorites]

More on Jeffrey Rambo.
posted by retrograde at 8:15 PM on June 25, 2018 [2 favorites]

But it's the sex that sells newspapers. And we should all know by now that the press in general doesn't give two shits if Rome burns as long as there is controversy to report on while it's burning.

Don't get me wrong, the creep factor is high, but as biogeo says, its importance compared to the blatant fascism that is permeating parts of the Federal Government is essentially zero.
posted by wierdo at 8:15 PM on June 25, 2018

What Medusa said: the focus should be on Wolfe at least as much as Watkins. With his security clearance he would have been required to at least disclose the affair. And everyone else who worked with him who knew about it should have turned him in.
posted by RandlePatrickMcMurphy at 5:53 AM on June 26, 2018 [2 favorites]

The Times did do an article on Wolfe when he was arrested, which is linked from this article. But they are writing about Watkins because she is a Times reporter. I think it's entirely appropriate in a situation like this for the Times to try to be transparent about their own employees' actions and decisions (both Watkins's and the relevant editors' and managers').
posted by enn at 6:08 AM on June 26, 2018 [5 favorites]

This crackdown on leakers isn't new. Obama put leakers in jail using the Espionage Act. People flagged at the time that this was dangerous. It's nice that people finally care because Trump is doing it.
posted by rednikki at 11:09 PM on June 26, 2018 [1 favorite]

Thanks for posting, I had heard vaguely about this but hadn't really followed it. I have to admit that I kind of assumed she'd crossed a line but it's less clear in the article. It's not like she was keeping the relationship secret--she disclosed to her editors and introduced him as boyfriend in social situations

The border patrol agent apparently "going vigilante" and using his privileged information to run a vendetta against someone who he thought was politically inconvenient is really scary, probably illegal, and probably something he'll get away with. The Cossacks serve the czar, after all. Still, the press can't use that to ignore possible misconduct on their own part so this definitely deserved an article.

which sort of pointedly doesn't mention whether this violated company policy.

Do you mean Bumiller? There's no way there's a company policy that management needs to be informed of ex-boyfriends in an area different than the one the reporter will be covering. Watkin's behavior would be a gray area under every policy I've served, not specifically proscribed but when things went wrong covered by the "you shouldn't put yourself in conflict of interest situations" and other use good judgment and risk assessment clauses.

But of course the seizure of records and the whole fuss are kind of inexplicable unless she was using boyfriends as sources.

The government can go hard and aggressive when investigating this things. Seizing them can be an intimidation tactic, which is my interpretation, but it's also certainly a "probable cause" situation worthy of investigation for legitimate reasons, right? He was leaking and he was sleeping with reporter(s).

I always tried to give you as much information that I could and to do the right thing with it so you could get that scoop before anyone else

Wait what? That wasn't in the article or did I miss it? That seems super relevant to leave out.
posted by mark k at 10:11 PM on June 27, 2018

Jill Abramson, Ex-New York Times Editor: The ‘Narcissistic’ NYT Is Making ‘Horrible Mistakes,’ Needs a ‘Course Correction’:
“That horrible 3,000-word exposé on Ali Watkins [the Times reporter who’s caught up in a leak investigation involving her ex-boyfriend, a former top staffer on the Senate Intelligence Committee] that aired her sex life and conflicts while not probing why she was hired, responsibility of editors, or, most crucially, the value of her journalism (her Carter Page scoop in BuzzFeed actually helped lead to appt of Mueller).
“That story hung a 26-year-old young woman out to dry. It was unimaginable to me what the pain must be like for her."
posted by rewil at 9:48 AM on June 28, 2018 [3 favorites]

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