WASHINGTON (AP) — A special Customs and Border Protection unit used sensitive government databases intended to track terrorists to investigate as many as 20 U.S.-based journalists, including a Pulitzer Prize-winning Associated Press reporter, according to a federal watchdog.
Yahoo News published a detailed report about the investigation. It also revealed that Counter Network Division questioned records of members of Congress and staffers.
Federal investigators were told by Jeffrey Rambo that he was an agent who admitted to running checks on journalists. “When a name comes across your desk you run it through every system you have access too, that’s just status quo, that’s what everyone does,” Rambo was quoted by Yahoo News as saying.
The AP obtained a redacted copy of a more than 500-page report by the Homeland Security Department’s inspector general that included the same statement, but with the speaker’s name blacked out. Homeland Security includes the border protection agency.
This revelation raised alarm within news media and caused a call for an exhaustive explanation.
“We are deeply concerned about this apparent abuse of power, Lauren Easton, AP’s director of media relations, said in a statement. “This appears to be an example of journalists being targeted for simply doing their jobs, which is a violation of the First Amendment.”
In its own statement, Customs and Border Protection did not specifically address the investigation, but said, “CBP vetting and investigatory operations, including those conducted by the Counter Network Division, are strictly governed by well-established protocols and best practices. CBP does not investigate individuals without a legitimate and legal basis to do so.”
An employee at Rambo’s Storymakers Coffee Roasters, a small storefront in San Diego’s Barrio Logan neighborhood, said Saturday that Rambo was not immediately available to comment. Rambo resides in San Diego.
This is just one example of how federal agencies are using their power in order to inspect the personal contacts of journalists.
In January, Attorney General Merrick Garland officially took office. prohibited prosecutors from seizing the records of journalists in leak investigations,With limited exceptions, the department’s policy was reversed. After revelations by the Trump Justice Department that records had been obtained from journalists and Democratic members of Congress, their aides, and Don McGahn, a former White House Counsel, this action was taken.
During Obama’s administration, federal agents secretly seized telephone records of some editors and reporters at the AP. The phone records were seized from both home and office telephone lines.
Rambo’s and the unit’s use of the databases was more extensive than previously known. Rambo and two Homeland Security staff were not charged with criminal misusing of government databases or lying by inspectors.
Rambo reported to Yahoo News about the fact that Customs and Border Protection had not been there for him and that his character has been unfairly painted in media reports.
“What none of these articles identify me as, is a law enforcement officer who was cleared of wrongdoing, who actually had a true purpose to be doing what I was doing,” he said, “and CBP refuses to acknowledge that, refuses to admit that, refuses to make that wrong right.”
Rambo, previously known as Rambo, was the agent that accessed Ali Watkins’ travel files and asked her questions about private sources. Watkins writes now for The New York Times.
Rambo was appointed to the Border Agency Unit, which is part of the National Targeting Center, Sterling, Virginia in 2017. Rambo told investigators that Watkins was the first person he approached to make it clear that he wanted to have reporters write about forced labor in other countries as a national security matter.
Yahoo News obtained an unredacted summary that outlined similar experiences with Martha Mendoza, AP reporter. Rambo’s unit “was able to vet MENDOZA as a reputable reporter,” the summary said, before trying to establish a relationship with her because of her expertise in writing about forced labor. Mendoza, who was part of the team that covered slavery in Southeast Asia’s fishery industry, won her the second Pulitzer Prize.
Dan White, Rambo’s supervisor in Washington, told investigators that his unit ran Mendoza through multiple databases, and “CBP discovered that one of the phone numbers on Mendoza’s phone was connected with a terrorist,” Yahoo News reported. White’s case also was referred for prosecution and declined.
In response, AP’s Easton said, “The Associated Press demands an immediate explanation from U.S. Customs and Border Protection as to why journalists including AP investigative reporter Martha Mendoza were run through databases used to track terrorists and identified as potential confidential informant recruits.”
It was Rambo’s outreach to Watkins that led to the inspector general’s investigation. Rambo sought to find Watkins in order to continue his efforts on forced labor. However, he quickly turned the spotlight to a leak investigation. Rambo even gave it a name, “Operation Whistle Pig,” for the brand of whiskey he drank when he met Watkins at a Washington, D.C., bar in June 2017.
The only person charged and convicted stemming from Rambo’s efforts is James WolfeWatkins was an ex-security director of the Senate Intelligence Committee and had a close personal relationship to Wolfe. Wolfe admitted lying to the FBIAbout his connections with reporters.
Rambo was extensively questioned about Watkins’ interest during conversations with FBI agents. To confront Watkins about their relationship, he used travel records and stated that Wolfe was her source of stories. Watkins admitted to the relationship but said Wolfe didn’t provide any information that would help her tell stories.
Rambo stated that Watkins wasn’t the only reporter who he had searched through records from government databases. However, he claimed in interviews with FBI that he only looked at Wolfe providing classified information. Rambo said he “conducted CBP record checks” on “15 to 20 national security reporters,” according to a FBI summary of the questioning that was contained in the inspector general’s report.
Danielle Rhoades Ha of the New York Times stated that new information regarding Watkins’s investigation raised concerns.
“We are deeply troubled to learn how U.S. Customs and Border Protection ran this investigation into a journalist’s sources. The attorney general stated clearly that the government must stop using leak investigation as an excuse for interfering with journalism. It is time for Customs and Border Protection to make public a full record of what happened in this investigation so this sort of improper conduct is not repeated.”
Watkins said she, too, was “deeply troubled at the lengths CBP and DHS personnel apparently went to try and identify journalistic sources and dig into my personal life. It was chilling then, and it remains chilling now.”
Elliot Spagat from San Diego, an Associated Press journalist, contributed to this article.