Federal anti-terror unit investigated U.S. journalists – KXAN Austin

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WASHINGTON (AP) – A Customs and Border Protection Task Force used sensitive government terrorist tracking databases to investigate up to 20 U.S.-based journalists, including a Pulitzer Prize-winning Associated Press reporter, according to a federal guard.

Yahoo News, which published a detailed report of the investigation, also found that the Counter Network Division had consulted records of congressional officials and possibly congressmen.

Jeffrey Rambo, an agent who admitted journalists were under surveillance in 2017, told federal investigators the practice was routine. “When a name comes up on your desk, you step through it through every system you have access to. It’s just the status quo, everyone does it, “Rambo was quoted as saying by Yahoo News.

The AP received an edited copy of a more than 500-page report from the Inspector General of the Department of Homeland Security containing the same statement, but with the speaker’s name blacked out. The border guard is part of Homeland Security.

The revelations sparked alarms in the news organizations and demanded a full explanation.

“We are deeply concerned about this apparent abuse of power,” said Lauren Easton, director of media relations at AP. “This appears to be an example of journalists being targeted only for their work, which is in violation of the First Amendment.”

In its own statement, Customs and Border Protection did not specifically address the investigation, but said: “CBP review and investigation operations, including those conducted by the Counter Network Division, are subject to strictly established protocols and best practices. CBP does not investigate any individual without a legitimate and legal basis to do so. “

An employee of Storymakers Coffee Roasters, a small retail store Rambo owns in the Barrio Logan neighborhood of San Diego, said 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 powers to investigate the contacts of journalists and others.

Earlier this year, Attorney General Merrick Garland formally banned prosecutors from seizing journalists’ records during leak investigations, with a few exceptions, reversing the department’s longstanding policy. That action came after outcry over revelations that the Trump Department of Justice had received records from journalists as well as Democratic members of Congress and their aides and a former White House attorney, Don McGahn.

During the Obama administration, federal investigators secretly seized phone recordings from some AP reporters and editors. These attacks affected office and home lines as well as cell phones.

The use of the databases by Rambo and the unit was more extensive than previously known. The inspector general referred investigators to possible criminal charges of misuse of government databases and lying, but the Justice Department declined to prosecute Rambo and two other Homeland Security officials.

Rambo complained to Yahoo News that Customs and Border Protection had not stood by him and that he had been unfairly portrayed in news reports.

“What doesn’t identify me in any of these articles is a law enforcement officer who has been acquitted of wrongdoing who actually had a real purpose in doing what I did,” he said, “and CBP refuses to acknowledge this, refuses to admit . “That refuses to do the wrong thing right.”

Rambo had previously been identified as the agent who accessed the travel documents of reporter Ali Watkins, who was 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 in 2017, which is part of the National Targeting Center in Sterling, Virginia. He told investigators that he originally reached out to Watkins to get reporters to write as a national about forced labor around the world security issue.

He also described similar efforts with AP reporter Martha Mendoza, according to an unedited executive summary published by Yahoo News. Rambo’s unit “was able to verify MENDOZA as a reputable reporter,” the abstract reads, before attempting to develop a relationship with her, given her expertise in forced labor writing. Mendoza won her second Pulitzer Prize in 2016 as part of a team reporting on slave labor in the fishing industry in Southeast Asia.

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 linked to a terrorist,” Yahoo News reported. White’s case has also been prosecuted and rejected.

In response, AP Easton said, “The Associated Press is demanding an immediate explanation from US Customs and Border Protection as to why journalists, including AP investigative reporter Martha Mendoza, searched databases used to track down terrorists and identified them as potential confidential informant recruits were identified. “

Rambo’s contact with Watkins led to the Inspector General’s investigation. While he allegedly sought her out to pursue his slave labor, Rambo quickly focused on a leak investigation. Rambo even named him “Operation Whistle Pig” for the brand of whiskey he was drinking when he met Watkins in 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 security director on the Senate Intelligence Committee who had a personal relationship with Watkins. Wolfe pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his contact with reporters.

In the course of conversations with FBI agents, Rambo was questioned extensively about his interest in Watkins. He used the travel log to confront her about her relationship with Wolfe, claiming Wolfe was her source for stories. Watkins confirmed the relationship but insisted that Wolfe did not provide any information on their stories.

Rambo said Watkins wasn’t the only reporter whose records he researched through state databases, although he claimed in his interviews with the FBI that he was just looking to see if Wolfe was providing classified information. Rambo said he had “conducted CBP investigations” on “15 to 20 national security reporters,” according to a summary of the FBI interview included in the Inspector General’s report.

New York Times spokeswoman Danielle Rhoades-Ha said new details about the Watkins investigation had raised new concerns.

“We are deeply concerned to learn how US Customs and Border Protection conducted this investigation into a journalist’s sources. As the Attorney General has clearly stated, the government must stop using leak investigations as an excuse to disrupt journalism. It is time for Customs and Border Protection to publish a full report on what went on in this investigation so that this type of inappropriate behavior does not recur. “

Watkins said she, too, was “deeply concerned about how far CBP and DHS staff seem to have tried to identify journalistic sources and penetrate my personal life. It was cool then, and it’s still cool today. “

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Associated Press writer Elliot Splits in San Diego contributed to this report.

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