As many as 20 journalists were investigated by a secretive U.S. Customs and Border Protection division beginning in 2017, according to a December 2021 report by Yahoo News.
The division, known as the Counter Network Division, would identify and vet individuals, including journalists, by pulling their email addresses, phone numbers and photos from their passport applications and running the information through multiple government databases.
Journalists known to have been investigated by the division include then-Politico reporter Ali Watkins, Associated Press reporter Martha Mendoza and Huffington Post founder Arianna Huffington, according to the Yahoo News report.
In June 2017, a CBP agent named Jeffrey Rambo contacted Watkins as part of the division’s efforts to combat forced labor, but uncovered in the process that she had had a relationship with James Wolfe, then-director of security for the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Rambo told Yahoo News the vetting procedures were standard and he was not a “rogue agent,” as he was described in a 2018 Washington Post article about his interaction with and investigation into Watkins.
“All these things are standard practices that — let me rephrase that. All of the things that led up to my interest in Ali Watkins were standard practice of what we do and what we did and probably what’s still done to this day,” Rambo told Yahoo News.
Rambo said the division’s investigation into Wolfe, referred to as Operation Whistle Pig, was focused only on whether the security director was leaking classified information to Watkins or other journalists. (Wolfe was subsequently arrested and charged with lying to the FBI about his interactions with reporters.)
According to an FBI counterintelligence memo, 15 to 20 national security reporters were also swept up in the investigation, Yahoo News reported. A memo from the National Targeting Center disclosed that the division reached out to reporters at HuffPost, The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the AP.
“I’m deeply troubled at the lengths CBP and DHS personnel apparently went to try and identify journalistic sources and dig into my personal life,” Watkins told Yahoo News. “It was chilling then, and it remains chilling now.”
Rambo, his supervisor Dan White and his co-worker were ultimately investigated by the inspector general, which referred its findings to a federal prosecutor for possible charges of misusing government databases and lying to investigators, the AP reported. The Justice Department declined to prosecute them.
AP Executive Editor Julie Pace sent a letter to DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas on Dec. 13 urging the agency to explain why investigative reporter Mendoza was vetted through the government databases and identified as a potential confidential informant, the outlet reported.
“This is a flagrant example of a federal agency using its power to examine the contacts of journalists,” Pace wrote. “While the actions detailed in the inspector general’s report occurred under a previous administration, the practices were described as routine.”
Following Yahoo News’s initial report, Sen. Ron Wyden issued a statement to Yahoo News demanding that the DHS turn over the inspector general’s inquiry into the division’s operation. Wyden, a democrat, is the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, which oversees CBP.
“If multiple government agencies were aware of this conduct and took no action to stop it, there needs to be serious consequences for every official involved, and DHS and the Justice Department must explain what actions they are taking to prevent this unacceptable conduct in the future,” Wyden said.
Rep. Bennie Thompson, democratic chairman of the Committee on Homeland Security, issued a statement calling for DHS to release information about the unit.
“If true, this abuse of government surveillance powers to target journalists, elected officials and their staff is deeply disturbing,” Thompson said. “The Inspector General must provide this report to Congress to enable critical oversight work."
According to Yahoo News, Justice Department policies on acquiring information from journalists pertain to issuing subpoenas, not searching through information already in the government’s possession.
“CBP vetting and investigatory operations, including those conducted by the Counter Network Division, are strictly governed by well-established protocols and best practices,” a spokesperson for the agency said in a written statement to Yahoo News.
This is not the first report of CBP monitoring journalists: In 2019, NBC 7 reported that Department of Homeland Security officials in San Diego had created a database of journalists, activists and attorneys who were involved in some way with the migrant caravan and had created dossiers on each individual.
In 2020, DHS compiled intelligence reports about the reporting and tweets of two journalists covering protests in Portland, Oregon, according to a Washington Post article. After the reports were made public, then-Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf ordered the office to cease all collection of information on journalists and announced an investigation into the reports.