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The pearl bracelet arrived in May 2014, in the spring of Ali Watkins�s senior year

in college, a graduation gift from a man many years her senior. It was the sort of
bauble that might imply something more deeply felt than friendship � but then
again, might not.

Ms. Watkins, then a 22-year-old intern in the Washington bureau of McClatchy


Newspapers, was not entirely surprised. She had met James Wolfe, a 50-something
senior aide to the Senate Intelligence Committee, while hunting for scoops on
Capitol Hill. He had become a helpful source, but there were times when he seemed
interested in other pursuits � like when he presented her with a Valentine�s Day
card.

On that occasion, Ms. Watkins explained to Mr. Wolfe that their relationship was
strictly professional. The bracelet suggested that her message had not gotten
through. She asked an editor for advice, and was told that as long as the gift was
not exorbitant � no stock in a company, the editor joshed � it was fine.

Ms. Watkins kept the bracelet.

The story of what happened next � of a three-year affair that unfolded between a
young reporter and a government official with access to top-secret information � is
now part of a federal investigation that has rattled the world of Washington
journalists and the sources they rely on.

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Mr. Wolfe, 57, was arrested on June 7 and charged with lying to investigators about
his contacts with Ms. Watkins and three other journalists. Ms. Watkins, a
Washington-based reporter for The New York Times, had her email and phone records
seized by federal prosecutors.

Now 26, Ms. Watkins was hired by The Times to cover federal law enforcement in
December, about four months after she has said her relationship with Mr. Wolfe
ended. Times officials are currently examining her work history and what influence
the relationship may have had on her reporting. The Times is also reviewing her
decision, on advice of her personal lawyer, not to immediately tell her editors
about a letter she received in February informing her that her records had been
seized.

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The seizure of Ms. Watkins�s records was alarming to First Amendment advocates.
With no allegation that classified information was disclosed, they said such a rare
and aggressive tactic was unjustified and could undermine journalists� ability to
report on government misconduct.

�The most important issue here remains the seizure of a journalist�s personal
communications, which we condemn and believe all Americans should be deeply
concerned about,� said Eileen Murphy, a spokeswoman for The Times.

Strikingly, the case against Mr. Wolfe brings together several of President Trump�s
preoccupations: leaks, which he has railed about since taking office; Washington�s
permanent bureaucracy, which he derides as the �deep state�; the news media, Mr.
Trump�s favorite target; and the investigation into his campaign�s ties to Russia.
The president told reporters that the F.B.I. had arrested �a very important
leaker,� prompting Mr. Wolfe�s lawyers to protest that their client was charged
with lying, not leaking, and that he has pleaded not guilty.
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This account is based on interviews with about three dozen friends and colleagues
of Ms. Watkins and Mr. Wolfe, many of whom asked for anonymity to speak candidly
about sensitive matters. Ms. Watkins declined to speak on the record, but she has
shared many details of her experiences with others who spoke with The Times. Mr.
Wolfe�s lawyers declined to comment in detail, saying: �Mr. Wolfe is fighting the
charges against him in court, not in the newspaper.�

The revelation of Ms. Watkins�s affair with Mr. Wolfe stunned many journalists who
had watched her ascent from college-age intern to rising star in the sensitive
field of national security reporting. Their relationship played out in the insular
world of Washington, where young, ambitious journalists compete for scoops while
navigating relationships with powerful, often older, sources.

Avoiding conflicts of interest is a basic tenet of journalism, and intimate


involvement with a source is considered verboten. In her short career, Ms. Watkins
disclosed her relationship with Mr. Wolfe to her employers in varying degrees of
detail � sometimes citing Mr. Wolfe�s name and position, and sometimes not � while
asserting that she had not used him as a source during their relationship.

If the romance with Mr. Wolfe raised any red flags, they were not enough to prevent
several news organizations from hiring Ms. Watkins, or to persuade her editors to
move her off the intelligence beat. Since meeting Mr. Wolfe in 2013, Ms. Watkins
reported on the Senate Intelligence Committee for Politico, BuzzFeed News, The
Huffington Post and McClatchy, where her reporting was part of a submission that
was a Pulitzer Prize finalist.

Last fall, after Ms. Watkins and Mr. Wolfe had broken up and while she was still
reporting on the intelligence committee for Politico, she briefly dated another
staff member at the committee, friends said. That relationship, which has not been
previously reported, ended when the two decided not to pursue something more
serious.
A Relationship, With Rules

Mr. Wolfe had a sensitive job: head of security at the Senate Intelligence
Committee, where he oversaw the handling and distribution of highly classified
materials delivered by agencies like the C.I.A. and the F.B.I. It was a high-
ranking role that Mr. Wolfe had occupied since before Ms. Watkins was born.

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Ms. Watkins told friends that she did not start dating Mr. Wolfe until after she
left McClatchy in the fall of 2014, and that when the relationship began, she
imposed ground rules: She would tell Mr. Wolfe, �You are not my source,� and
occasionally interrupt him if he started discussing his government work.
Image
James Wolfe, a senior aide to the Senate Intelligence Committee, left, and the
journalist Ali Watkins, second from right, led several friends on a tour of the
Capitol in early 2017.CreditKara Carson

But sometimes, she admitted, it got complicated: She would make a mental note of
tidbits he mentioned offhand, or gossip with him about Capitol Hill, or throw out a
fact and gauge his reply.

The relationship has prompted concern in many newsrooms that Ms. Watkins�s conduct
has made journalists, and particularly women, vulnerable to unfounded accusations
of exchanging sex for information. And it has complicated what would otherwise be a
straightforward argument for press advocates protesting the seizure of Ms.
Watkins�s emails and phone records.

�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. �Hers is not
the hill they should volunteer to die on.�

Mr. Wolfe, who is married but whose wife now lives in Connecticut, retired quietly
in December, shortly after investigators questioned him about possible leaks.

Colleagues of Ms. Watkins describe her as a reporter of unusual talent, who


cultivated a wide variety of sources throughout the federal government.

�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.�

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�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.�
Relishing the Clandestine

The gray-haired father of two stood out amid the young crowd who gathered for
barbecues in Ms. Watkins�s backyard in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of Washington.
She introduced him as Jim, her boyfriend.

The son of a Kentucky construction worker, James Anthony Wolfe had spent three
decades in charge of security for the Senate Intelligence Committee, which he
joined during Ronald Reagan�s administration, after a four-year stint in the Army.
He slowly earned the trust of Democratic and Republican officials alike � sometimes
sitting in on briefings so sensitive that most aides were asked to leave the room.

Mr. Wolfe relished the clandestine nature of his work � using �jimwolfe007� as his
personal email address � and he projected an affable charm. Colleagues said they
were dumbfounded by the government�s accusations against him � particularly since
it was Mr. Wolfe�s job to arrange meetings with the F.B.I. when other staff members
were suspected of leaking.

But one colleague said there was an element of the indictment that was less
surprising: that Mr. Wolfe had been having an affair.

When he met Ms. Watkins in the fall of 2013, Mr. Wolfe was married to his second
wife, Jane Rhodes Wolfe, a former F.B.I. agent.

Ms. Watkins was in her senior year at Temple University. She grew up in a small
eastern Pennsylvania town and apprenticed at local papers before landing a coveted
internship at the Washington bureau of McClatchy. In recent years, she has zipped
around Washington on a motorcycle, taken boxing lessons and doted on her Husky,
Kellan, whom she outfitted with a Putin chew toy.

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Ms. Watkins began staking out the committee�s biweekly closed-door business
meetings. �She was often the only reporter there as many veteran journalists saw
little value in spending hours outside the committee�s high-security offices,� her
McClatchy editor, James Asher, would later write in a nominating letter to the
Pulitzer judging panel.

Her reporting led to a series in 2014 that revealed the C.I.A. was spying on the
Intelligence Committee, which was compiling a critical report on the agency�s use
of torture. It earned her a full-time slot at McClatchy after graduation.

It also brought her closer to Mr. Wolfe, who would later text her saying how
�proud� he was of her work on the series. In October 2014, after Ms. Watkins had
jumped from McClatchy to The Huffington Post, Mr. Wolfe took her to a rooftop bar
to celebrate her 23rd birthday; before the night was over, they kissed.
Image
Ms. Watkins is identified as �Reporter #2� in the indictment of Mr. Wolfe on
charges he lied to investigators about his contacts with reporters.

Mr. Wolfe�s private life was already complicated.

In 2004, amid a bitter divorce, he was accused of assault by his first wife, Leslie
Adair Wolfe, who sought a protective order and claimed her husband had �threatened
me verbally, pushed, shoved, strangled, spit in face� and pulled her down the
hallway by her hair, according to court records.

The charges were later dropped by prosecutors, as were other charges that Ms. Wolfe
made in 2009 that her former husband had broken into her house, records show. If
any serious charges had been successfully prosecuted, Mr. Wolfe might have lost his
security clearance.

His lawyers, Benjamin Klubes and Preston Burton, said that Mr. Wolfe �has
consistently denied that he ever physically abused his first wife.�

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Scoops and Disclosures

Ms. Watkins told people she was aware of Mr. Wolfe�s messy divorce, but assumed the
abuse allegations were unfounded. Instead, she was concerned how a romantic
entanglement might affect her journalism.

Relationships between reporters and sources are an art, not a science: In


Washington, meals and late nights out with sources are part of a journalist�s job
description. But becoming romantically involved is widely viewed as a conflict,
opening a journalist to accusations of bias.

Ms. Watkins initially sought advice from a Huffington Post editor, Amanda Terkel,
who warned her that critics can use personal relationships against journalists.
Editors there decided they were comfortable with her continuing to cover
intelligence because Ms. Watkins said she was not using Mr. Wolfe as a source.

Other journalists at the site had managed their own relationships with partners in
government: one editor, Sam Stein, was married to a member of the Barack Obama
administration, a fact he disclosed in stories.

Ms. Watkins �cared about her craft,� said Mr. Stein, one of her editors at
Huffington Post. �She really cared about breaking a good story, a story that had
meat on it.�

Her clips caught the attention of BuzzFeed News, which hired her in late 2015.
Covering intelligence, including the Senate committee, Ms. Watkins scored a scoop
that other news organizations scrambled to match: a former Trump campaign adviser,
Carter Page, had met with a Russian spy in 2013.
People at BuzzFeed say they had a general sense of her personal life: During a job
interview, Ms. Watkins told Miriam Elder, an editor, that she was dating a man who
did intelligence work on Capitol Hill. She said he was not a source, but did not
volunteer Mr. Wolfe�s name or title, and the discussion went no further. (Ms. Elder
declined to comment, but did not dispute the account.)

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Ben Smith, BuzzFeed�s editor in chief, said he believed Ms. Watkins when she said
that Mr. Wolfe was not a source. Mr. Smith, in an email, did not condone dating a
source, but he expressed a less draconian view about reporters who date within the
industry they cover. �Reporters and editors aren�t some kind of priesthood,� he
wrote, adding that editors �make these genuinely complex calls on a case-by-case
basis.�

Ms. Watkins made another move in May 2017, to Politico, while she and Mr. Wolfe
were still together. She has told friends that when she was hired, she informed a
Politico editor, Paul Volpe, that she was dating a man in the intelligence
community, though she again did not volunteer Mr. Wolfe�s name or his position. A
spokesman for Politico, Brad Dayspring, said only that she �did not disclose the
personal nature of her relationship early on in her tenure.�

All sides, however, agree that Ms. Watkins first identified Mr. Wolfe by name to
her editors after an unsettling episode that left Ms. Watkins frightened and her
managers confused. It was the first concrete indication that her involvement with
Mr. Wolfe might have serious consequences.
A Bizarre Tale

On the morning of June 2, 2017, a shaken Ms. Watkins approached her Politico
editors with a bizarre tale.

The day before, she explained, she had received an anonymous email from a man who
claimed to work for the government and wanted to meet. 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.
Image
Mr. Wolfe, with his lawyer, Benjamin Klubes, outside federal court in Washington,
after he appeared before a federal judge on charges he lied to investigators about
his contacts with Ms. Watkins and three other journalists.CreditAlex Wong/Getty
Images

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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.

Mr. Rambo, reached by phone, declined to comment. A Border Protection spokesman


said the matter has been referred to the agency�s Office of Professional
Responsibility.

Inside Politico, there was curiosity over why a border patrol agent appeared to be
targeting one of its reporters. But editors were also surprised to learn that the
man Ms. Watkins had been dating was a powerful official on a committee that she
covered.

If Politico editors had reservations about Ms. Watkins�s relationship with Mr.
Wolfe, they were not reflected in her assignments: over the following six months,
she continued to write about the work of the Senate Intelligence Committee,
including a closed-door session with Corey Lewandowski and a meeting with John
Podesta.

By August, Ms. Watkins told friends that she and Mr. Wolfe had broken up. He had
been spooked by her meeting with Mr. Rambo, and was refusing to disclose their
relationship to his own employers in the Senate.

In the fall, Ms. Watkins started dating a different staff member from the
committee. She told others that she had informed a Politico editor who did not
object. But Mr. Dayspring, the Politico spokesman, said: �Politico editors were not
made aware of this relationship.�

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About the same time, Mr. Wolfe, too, appeared to be moving on. He gave another
young female reporter covering the Intelligence Committee some valuable
information, according to a person with direct knowledge of the interaction. Then
he sent her a series of personal nighttime texts, including one at 10 p.m. asking
her what she was up to. She deflected his inquiries and never got another tip from
him, the person said.

Ms. Watkins told some friends that she wanted off the beat, but that her editors
were eager for scoops about the Trump-Russia investigation. (In a statement,
Politico said Ms. Watkins�s work was �managed accordingly� after her disclosure
about Mr. Wolfe.)

On Twitter, she wrote about the joys of reporting on the committee.

�The CIA once told me I have �an emotional dependence� on covering� it, Ms. Watkins
wrote as she prepared to join The Times last December, adding: �I thought they were
wrong until I have to leave (they were a *little* right.) I�ve loved getting to
know this weird hallway.�
A Visit From the F.B.I.

In December, before she started work at The Times, Ms. Watkins told the paper�s
national security editor, Amy Fiscus, about her previous relationships with staff
members of the Senate committee, and about her encounter with Mr. Rambo. Ms. Fiscus
relayed the information to the paper�s Washington bureau chief, Elisabeth Bumiller.

Ms. Fiscus and Ms. Bumiller said in interviews that they did not feel her past
relationships should be a barrier to hiring her, because Ms. Watkins said that Mr.
Wolfe had not been a source during their relationship, and because she would not be
covering the Senate Intelligence Committee. They did not go back to ask Ms.
Watkins�s previous employers about how she handled her involvement with Mr. Wolfe,
and Ms. Bumiller did not inform other top newsroom leaders of the relationship. Ms.
Watkins was also interviewed by several other senior editors before being hired.

On Dec. 14, days before her start date, Ms. Watkins was approached by two F.B.I.
agents with questions about Mr. Wolfe, a conversation she immediately reported to
her editors in the Times Washington bureau. In February, however, Ms. Watkins
received a letter that she did not tell her editors about: a notice from the
Justice Department, informing her that investigators had seized some of her email
and phone records.

Obtaining a reporter�s private communications is so unusual that it is often


reported as news, and media organizations generally protest such actions. But on
the advice of her lawyer, Ms. Watkins kept the information to herself. She did not
tell The Times until nearly four months later, when a story by her colleagues about
Mr. Wolfe�s arrest was imminent; in a statement at the time, Ms. Murphy, the Times
spokeswoman, said the paper �obviously would have preferred to know.�

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The Times declined to comment on its internal review. Since Mr. Wolfe�s arrest, the
accuracy of Ms. Watkins�s articles for The Times and other publications has not
been challenged. In recent days, she has been out of the office on a preplanned
vacation.

On Feb. 15, two days after the Justice Department sent the letter notifying her
that it had seized her records, Ms. Watkins sent an email to her colleagues in the
Washington bureau. She had brought in chocolates for sharing � �from an old source
who somehow thought it wouldn�t be creepy to bring them to a dinner, stupidly and
unintentionally scheduled on valentine�s day,� she wrote.

According to a person familiar with the source, the dinner companion was not Mr.
Wolfe, but a different Washington national security veteran.

�Sigh,� Ms. Watkins wrote at the end of her n

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