Questions remain over whether BuzzFeed News acted ethically with a former employee, Ali Watkins, who had a romantic relationship with an indicted former security director for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
Watkins told her BuzzFeed editors about her relationship with the individual, James Wolfe, who the Department of Justice has charged with lying to investigators during a leak probe, according to The New York Times, where Watkins now works as a national security reporter.
BuzzFeed Editor-In-Chief Ben Smith said he would “not comment at all on a reporter’s sources in the middle of an unjustifiable leak hunt” when The Daily Caller News Foundation asked about the extent the organization knew about Watkins’ behavior to corroborate The Times’ reporting.
“I am baffled that the FBI and Justice Department are going to these dangerous lengths over a story that points to public court documents that describe Russian spies approaching a Trump adviser, who himself is quoted confirming his role in the episode. I’d like to know why that should be secret,” Smith added.
Later, a BuzzFeed spokesman told TheDCNF that the company does not dispute The Times’ reporting on Wolfe’s indictment, meaning that at least some BuzzFeed editors were aware of Watkins’ relationship with the Senate Intelligence aide.
It was never disclosed in any of the pieces Watkins wrote for BuzzFeed that she had a conflict of interest with an individual that provided her with information. If her editors knew about this relationship, it remains unclear why they did not make this known to readers or prohibit her from covering the Senate Intelligence committee. (RELATED: How BuzzFeed’s ‘Data-Monster’ Leveraged User Data To Fuel Super PACs, Target Voters)
Most notably, Watkins was responsible for breaking the April 3, 2017 story in BuzzFeed that former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page had met with a Russian spy in 2013. (RELATED: Senate Select Intel Staffer Targeted Trump Campaign Adviser In Aggressive Leak Campaign)
That story subsequently led to a public media campaign by Page to prove his innocence, despite the fact that he has never been charged with a crime.
It already goes without saying that Watkins likely breached her ethical duties by not publicly disclosing the fact that she was romantically involved with one of her sources, but that duty extended to her editors as well.
A spokesman for BuzzFeed told TheDCNF that it is “not even alleged that [Wolfe] was the source on the story in question],” but the DOJ’s indictment makes it clear that Wolfe allegedly supplied Watkins with information. Whether any of that information ended up in Watkins’ reporting is unknown.
According to the DOJ, Wolfe admitted to the FBI that he had a relationship with a reporter identified as “REPORTER #2” in court documents. The two exchanged tens of thousands of messages and phone calls.
That reporter is almost certainly Watkins.
In December 2017, he told “REPORTER #2” that “I always tried to give you as much Information … so you could get that scoop before anyone else,” the indictment said.
“I’ve watched your career take off even before you ever had a career in journalism … I always tried to give you as much Information [sic] that I could and to do the right thing with it so you could get that scoop before anyone else … I always enjoyed the way that you would pursue a story, like nobody else was doing in my hal1way (sic). I felt like I was part of your excitement and was always very supportive of your career and the tenacity that you exhibited to chase down a good story,” the full message reads.
Wolfe has denied sharing any classified information or helping any reporters with leads.
The Times reported Thursday that Justice Department officials seized the email and phone records of Watkins during its investigation into Wolfe. None of the records obtained contained any actual messages.
Watkins did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
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