BuzzFeed News editor in chief Ben Smith criticized the Justice Department on CNN’s Reliable Sources Sunday for revealing his former reporter Ali Watkins was engaged in a romantic relationship with Senate Intelligence Committee security veteran James Wolfe.
Partial transcript between Smith and Reliable Sources host Brian Stelter are as follows:
STELTER: About last year, did you know at that time when Ali was writing for BuzzFeed that she was in a relationship with the Senate staffer?
SMITH: You know, I’m — I think I shouldn’t — it’s not appropriate for me to comment at all on a confidential conversation with the journalist. But as you said, Ms. Watkins told The New York Times that she had been transparent with her employers. I would also say this, by the way, is a conversation the Department of Justice wants us to be having.
STELTER: You think they want us to focus on the romantic relationship and whether it’s appropriate for a reporter to be dating a source?
SMITH: I don’t see why else — I don’t see why else there are paragraphs of that in an indictment about a guy who allegedly lied to the FBI. They have — his text messages apparently from his phone that appear to confirm that he lied — in their view, he lied to the FBI. I think they would love to have a conversation, you know, about a reporter’s personal life.
And certainly, they have launched a million smears on social media. My social media is just full of like disgusting smears of a reporter right now, rather than a conversation about what they were doing, what impelled them to use this kind of last-resort tool of covertly spying on journalists.
STELTER: But is it appropriate for a reporter to date a source?
SMITH: You’re making an assumption about who Ms. Watkins source was in the story that, by the way, isn’t asserted in the indictment and that, yeah.
The Justice Department announced charges against Wolfe on Thursday, accusing the 58-year-old Capitol Hill staffer of making false statements about relaying classified information to reporters such as then-Buzzfeed News turned New York Times reporter Ali Watkins.
As part of Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ crackdown on leaks, the national security reporter’s phone and email records were obtained by federal investigators, the New York Times reports.
Court documents indicate Wolfe told the FBI that he was romantically involved with Watkins since 2013.
“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],” Wolfe said to Watkins in December 2017. “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.”
Upon learning of the indictment, Smith tweeted, “We’re deeply troubled by what looks like a case of law enforcement interfering with a reporter’s constitutional right to gather information about her own government.”