NY Times reviews work history of its reporter amid leak case

The New York Times says that it is now examining the work history of one of its reporters, Ali Watkins, after federal prosecutors seized her email and phone records as part of a leak investigation. The Justice Department informed Watkins that in February, it had obtained her private communications records during its probe of a top Senate Intelligence Committee aide, James A. Wolfe, who is accused of making false statements to the FBI. The government suspects Wolfe leaked classified intelligence to reporters, which he has denied.

The Times said it learned that Watkins’ records had been seized last week, and the records that were seized covered several years prior to Watkins’ hiring by the Times in late December 2017. Though she had been informed of the government’s seizure of her records in February, on her lawyer’s advice, she did not tell the Times until last week. The FBI asked Watkins about a previous three-year relationship with the 57-year-old Wolfe, but she declined to answer their questions. The Times says that Watkins’ and Wolfe’s “extended personal relationship” ended last year. 

On Tuesday, the Times said it would review Watkins’ involvement in the case and what she disclosed about her relationship with Wolfe to her other prior employers. Before she was hired by the New York Times, Watkins worked for Buzzfeed, Politico, The Huffington Post and McClatchy news service, where, as an intern, her reporting was part of an investigative series that was a Pulitzer finalist. 

Watkins, who covers federal law enforcement, disclosed her prior relationship with Wolfe before she was hired and before she began working for the Times in December, according to the Times. She also said that Wolfe did not provide her with information during their relationship.

On Dec. 14, just before she began working for the Times, FBI agents approached Watkins. They asked her about her contact with Wolfe, and she has said she didn’t answer their questions.

Before that, 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.

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.

© 2018 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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