News & Opinion | June 25, 2018 10:01 am

The Story Behind the Affair That Shook Washington Media

Ali Watkins, a reporter, and James Wolfe, a security aide, had a three-year affair.

james wolfe
James A. Wolfe, a former Senate Intelligence Committee aide, exits the Edward A. Garmatz United States Courthouse on June 8, 2018 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Mark Makela/Getty Images)
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Ali Watkins, a reporter who covered the sensitive field of national security reporting, met James Wolfe, a senior aide to the Senate Intelligence Committee while hunting for scoops on Capitol Hill. They were ultimately involved in a three-year affair while Watkins worked for places like The Huffington Post, Politico and BuzzfeedShe claims that she never used Wolfe as a source while they were in a relationship. Wolfe, 57, was arrested on June 7 and charged with lying to investigators about his contacts with Watkins and three other journalists. Watkins, now a Washington-based reporter for The New York Times, had her email and phone records seized by federal prosecutors, which has alarmed First Amendment advocates. The revelation of their affair stunned many journalists who watched Watkins take the tricky beat by storm, starting as a college intern.

Some think this relationship raises concerns in newsrooms that her conduct has made journalists, particularly female, vulnerable to unfounded accusations of exchanging sex for information.

“It is already clear that Watkins’ highly unethical conduct presents a problem for press defenders,” Michael Goodwin, a New York Post columnist, wrote this month, echoing other right-wing commentators who have criticized Ms. Watkins, according to The Times. “Hers is not the hill they should volunteer to die on.”

But others think that talking about the relationship at all is unnecessary.

“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 with The Times. “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.”