When an Owl becomes a watchdog: Senior exposes alleged spy activities in U.S. Senate

A senior journalism major has broken a major national story for McClatchy she believes exposes an example of federal government officials operating under a veil of secrecy away from the accountability of the public eye.

Ali Watkins stands in front of the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C.
Ali Watkins on “the Hill.”

Ali Watkins, 22, of Fleetwood, Pa., co-wrote a March 4 article (“Probe: Did the CIA spy on the U.S. Senate?”) that details an apparent feud between the CIA and the Senate Intelligence Committee over a congressional report on the CIA’s “secret detention and interrogation program.” The article cites sources who say the CIA monitored computers Senate aides used to prepare the report.

The story (and several more yet to come) was the direct result of tips Watkins received through unnamed sources with whom she has developed trusting relationships since she began reporting for McClatchy’s Washington bureau as an intern in May 2013. Since December, Watkins has stayed on with McClatchy as a stringer and hopes to work as a reporter in the nation’s capital after graduating from Temple University’s School of Media and Communication in May.

“This opportunity wouldn’t have come about if my professors hadn’t invested in me first,” said Watkins, who has maintained a full course load and a spot on Temple’s rowing team during her time at McClatchy.

A journalist’s duty
Through her education at Temple, Watkins has come to believe that journalism is an important part of American society.

“To me, this story stands as a testament to watchdog journalism,” Watkins said. “It was made very clear to us right from the beginning that if we didn’t dig into this story and chase every lead, the most important elements of the narrative would unfold behind closed doors, and very likely never be exposed in the public forum. This lead was one of those stories that came with a responsibility; we needed to find the facts and report them clearly in order to hold the powerful accountable. And that’s pretty powerful stuff.”

Andrew Mendelson, chair of the Journalism Department, said a “small, but dedicated” group of students pursue investigative journalism at Temple.

“They are among the most driven and inquisitive of our students, relishing in their role as aggressive watchdogs for the public,” he said. “Ali is one of those amazing students who has both the passion and the talent to pursue complicated, hard-to-access stories and bring them out for the public. She has done this at The Temple News, in classes and now for McClatchy. She shows no fear in tracking down reticent public officials or obscure records or data sets.”

Watkins first landed the McClatchy internship through the connections she forged interning at Philadelphia media outlets, including the Philadelphia Daily News.

“Philadelphia is an awesome place for journalism and making journalism connections,” Watkins said.

As one of five McClatchy interns last year, Watkins was immediately thrust into its coverage of Edward Snowden, a story that broke just a week after she started.

“It was a trial-by-fire learning experience,” she said.

Key to journalism: Show up
The most important thing she learned – to which she credits landing the CIA story – is the importance of being a constant presence on Capitol Hill and around the intelligence community. She would wait outside of locked doors and elevators for government officials to pass by.

“Some people call it stalking. I call it the relentless pursuit of truth,” Watkins said.

But it was her constant presence that built the trust between her and her sources that led these people  to offer key tips that kicked off a two-month McClatchy investigation, resulting in the March 4 story. McClatchy was the first to break the story, leaving renowned media outlets like The New York Times scrambling to catch up.

“In my experience, it’s being genuine,” she said when asked about the key to building these kind of relationships. She noted, however, that there’s “a really challenging line to walk. Where do you draw this line between personal and professional? They need to be able to trust you. You need to show a genuine interest in people and that you’re not going out just to promote yourself. If you just get to know them, people can have really interesting things to say.”

Concrete details
Watkins immediately went to her editor when she received the tip to say, “I have this and I need help because this is going to be huge.” After two weeks of additional reporting, Watkins and the team of reporters with whom she worked were certain they had a solid piece of news. They worked hard to ensure every detail of the story was confirmed.

“Even after we had it watertight, we wanted to make it more watertight,” she said.

Amid classes, studying and rowing practice, Watkins will head down to D.C. every time she has a spare 12 hours to continue working the story; her editors promised to keep her in the mix as it develops.

“Stay tuned,” she said. “It’s going to keep moving.”

– By Jeff Cronin, SMC Communications