WASHINGTON – A special customs and border protection unit used sensitive government terrorist tracking databases to investigate up to 20 US-based journalists, including an award-winning Associate Press reporter Pulitzer, according to a federal watchdog.
Yahoo News, which published a detailed report on the investigation, also found that the unit, the Counter Network Division, had questioned the files of Congressional staff members and possibly members of Congress.
Jeffrey Rambo, an agent who admitted to carrying out checks on journalists in 2017, told federal investigators the practice was routine. “When a name appears on your desktop, you run it through whatever systems you have access to, it’s just the status quo, it’s what everyone else does,” Rambo said, quoted by Yahoo News.
The PA obtained a redacted copy of a more than 500 page report from the Inspector General of the Department of Homeland Security which included the same statement, but with the name of the speaker blacked out. The border protection agency is part of internal security.
The revelations alarmed news outlets and prompted a demand for a full 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 just doing their job, 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’s verification and investigation operations, including those conducted by the Counter Network division, are strictly governed by well-established protocols and good practices. CBP does not investigate individuals without a legitimate and legal basis for doing so. “
An employee of Storymakers Coffee Roasters, a small storefront store Rambo owns in San Diego’s Barrio Logan neighborhood, said on Saturday that Rambo was not immediately available for comment. He lives in San Diego.
The new disclosures are just the latest examples of federal agencies using their power to scrutinize the contacts of journalists and others.
Earlier this year, Attorney General Merrick Garland formally barred prosecutors from seizing journalists’ files in leak investigations, with a few exceptions, reversing years of departmental policy. The action came after an outcry over revelations that Trump’s Justice Department obtained files belonging to journalists, as well as Democratic members of Congress and their aides and a former House lawyer. Blanche, Don McGahn.
During the Obama administration, federal investigators secretly seized the telephone tapes of some PA journalists and editors. These seizures involved office and home telephone lines as well as cell phones.
Rambo and the Unit’s use of databases was more extensive than previously thought. The Inspector General referred possible criminal charges of abuse of government databases and lying to investigators, but the Justice Department refused to prosecute Rambo and two other internal security workers.
Rambo complained to Yahoo News that customs and border protection failed to support him and that he was unfairly portrayed in reports.
“What none of these articles identifies to me is a law enforcement officer who was cleared of wrongdoing, who actually had a real goal of doing what I was doing,” he said. he said, “and CBP refuses to admit it, refuses to admit it, refuses to right this wrong.
Rambo had previously been identified as the agent who had accessed the travel records of journalist Ali Watkins, then working for Politico, and questioned her about confidential sources. Watkins now writes for the New York Times.
Rambo was assigned to the border agency unit, which is part of the National Targeting Center in Sterling, Va., In 2017. He told investigators he initially approached Watkins as part of a larger effort. broad to get journalists to write about forced labor around the world as a national security issue.
He also described similar efforts with AP reporter Martha Mendoza, according to an unwritten summary obtained by Yahoo News. Rambo’s unit “was able to assess MENDOZA as a reputable journalist,” the summary said, before trying to establish a relationship with her because of her expertise in writing about forced labor. Mendoza won his second Pulitzer Prize in 2016 as part of a team that reported on slave labor in the fishing industry in Southeast Asia.
Dan White, Rambo’s supervisor in Washington, told investigators his unit was running Mendoza through multiple databases, and “CBP discovered that one of the phone numbers on Mendoza’s phone was linked to a terrorist. Yahoo News reported. White’s case was also referred for prosecution and was dismissed.
In response, AP Easton said, “The Associated Press demands an immediate explanation from U.S. Customs and Border Protection as to why reporters, including AP investigative reporter Martha Mendoza, were searched in databases used to track terrorists and identified as potential recruits of confidential informants.
It was Rambo’s awareness of Watkins that led to the Inspector General’s investigation. As he pointedly searched for her to continue his forced labor work, Rambo quickly focused on investigating the leaks. Rambo even gave him a name, “Operation Whistle Pig,” for the brand of whiskey he drank when he met Watkins at a Washington, DC bar in June 2017.
The only person charged and convicted as a result of Rambo’s efforts is James Wolfe, a former Senate Intelligence Committee security director who had a personal relationship with Watkins. Wolfe pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his contact with reporters.
During conversations with FBI agents, Rambo was asked at length about his interest in Watkins. He used the travel documents to confront her about her relationship with Wolfe, claiming Wolfe was her source of stories. Watkins acknowledged the relationship, but insisted Wolfe did not provide information for his stories.
Rambo said Watkins was not the only journalist whose records he searched government databases, although he maintained in his interviews with the FBI that he was only interested in whether Wolfe was providing any information. classified information. Rambo said he “performed CBP file checks” on “15-20 national security reporters,” according to an FBI summary of the interrogation contained in the Inspector General’s report.
New York Times spokeswoman Danielle Rhoades-Ha said new details of the Watkins investigation raised new concerns.
“We are deeply disturbed to learn how US Customs and Border Protection conducted this investigation into a journalist’s sources. As the Attorney General has made clear, the government must stop using the investigations into the leaks as an excuse to interfere with journalism It is time for Customs and Border Protection to release a full account of what happened in this investigation so that this kind of inappropriate conduct does not happen again.
Watkins said she too was “deeply troubled by the length of the CBP and DHS staff apparently trying to identify journalistic sources and dig into my personal life.” It was freezing then, and it’s still freezing now.
Associated Press writer Elliot Spagat in San Diego contributed to this report.
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