Posted March 12, 2014

Temple student exposes alleged spy activities in U.S. Senate

Senior journalism student Ali Watkins has broken a major, national news story about the CIA.

A senior journalism student has broken a major, national news story she believes exposes an example of government officials operating secretly, away from the accountability of the public eye.

Ali Watkins, 22, of Fleetwood, Pa., co-wrote a March 4 article for McClatchy DC News 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.

That story (and several more to come) was the result of tips Watkins received from unnamed sources with whom she has developed trusting relationships since she began reporting for McClatchy’s Washington bureau as an intern in May 2013. Watkins currently freelances for the bureau and hopes to work as a reporter in Washington, D.C., after graduating from the 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 while working for McClatchy.

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.”

Andrew Mendelson, chair of the Department of Journalism, 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.”

The most important thing Watkins 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 locked doors and elevators for government officials to pass by. It was her presence that built trust with her sources, leading them to offer key tips that kicked off a two-month McClatchy investigation. 

Watkins went to her editor immediately and said, “I have this and I need help because this is going to be huge.” Watkins and a team of reporters were certain they had a solid piece of news and worked hard to ensure every detail of the story was confirmed. McClatchy was the first to break it, leaving renowned media outlets like The New York Times scrambling to catch up.

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