CBP launches review of secretive division that targeted journalists, lawmakers and other Americans

U.S. Customs and Border Protection is conducting a review of a secretive division that uses some of the country’s most sensitive databases to investigate the travel and financial records and personal connections of journalists, members of Congress and other Americans not suspected of any crime.

“A review is underway to ensure that the activities in question during the prior Administration remain an isolated incident and that proper safeguards are in place to prevent an incident like this from taking place in the future,” Luis Miranda, a spokesperson for CBP, told Yahoo News.

CBP’s internal probe was prompted by Yahoo News’ reporting earlier this month on Operation Whistle Pig, a leak investigation targeting reporter Ali Watkins and her then boyfriend, James Wolfe, a Senate staffer. The investigation was launched by Jeffrey Rambo, a border patrol agent assigned to CBP’s Counter Network Division who was looking at whether Wolfe provided classified information to Watkins and other reporters.

James Wolfe
James Wolfe, former director of security for the Senate Intelligence Committee. (Jose Luis Magana/AP)

As many as 20 national security reporters were also investigated during this time, according to an FBI counterintelligence memo included in the Department of Homeland Security inspector general report obtained by Yahoo News.

The DHS inspector general investigation was launched in response to an article in the Washington Post identifying Rambo as a border patrol agent who used a fake name to meet with Watkins, then a reporter for Politico. During the meeting, he questioned her about her sources and about her relationship with Wolfe, and also discussed leak investigations.

At the end of their two-year probe, investigators referred Rambo, his supervisor Dan White and a colleague Charles Ratliff for potential criminal charges including conspiracy and misuse of government computers. White was also referred for multiple potential counts of making false statements. Federal prosecutors declined prosecution, citing, among other reasons, the lack of policies and procedures governing their work.

Rambo told Yahoo News he was authorized every step of the way, and records included in the DHS investigative report show that his supervisor Dan White ordered him to expand his probe into journalists. White is still working at the Counter Network Division, and Rambo is currently employed as a border patrol agent in San Diego.

The Counter Network Division regularly investigated potential contacts, including journalists, as part of a process it referred to as “vetting.” As part of this process, the subject would be run through multiple databases, including a terrorism watch list.

Jeff Rambo
Jeff Rambo at his coffee shop in San Diego. (Sandy Huffaker for Yahoo News)

The division regularly conducts database checks on reporters “to determine personal connections,” Rambo’s supervisor Dan White told investigators, according to the DHS investigation report obtained by Yahoo News.

Charles Ratliff, another CBP employee brought in to assist Operation Whistle Pig, used the vast resources and databases available to the division to build what investigators later described as a phone tree of contacts — mapping out connections between people to identify a hidden network. Such work, which was used to track terrorists, was also directed at Americans, including congressional members and staffers and journalists..

“When Congressional “Staffers” schedule flights, the numbers they use get captured and analyzed by CBP,” Rambo’s supervisor, White, told investigators.

“White stated that Ratliff “does this all the time –inappropriate contacts between people.”

Ratliff regularly compiled reports on members of Congress with alleged ties to someone in the Terrorist Screening Database, according to the investigative report obtained by Yahoo News.

CBP marshaled those same resources to identify journalists' confidential sources, which was then passed to the FBI.

Pulitzer Prize-winning Associated Press reporter Martha Mendoza was one of the journalists vetted by the Counter Network Division — targeted only because she’d reported on forced labor, one of the issues related to CBP’s work. Huffington Post founder Arianna Huffington was also swept up in its dragnet.

“There is no specific guidance on how to vet someone,” Rambo later told investigators. “In terms of policy and procedure, to be 100 percent frank there, there’s no policy and procedure on vetting.”

Martha Mendoza
Martha Mendoza, a journalist with the Associated Press. (Khairil Yusof/Flickr)

The Counter Network Division also investigated NGOs, members of Congress and their respective staffs. Enough Project, a nonprofit named by CBP as one of those organizations investigated by Rambo’s team, told Yahoo News it was troubled by the revelations.

“If the Enough Project was in fact targeted for ‘extreme vetting’ by a United States government agency for our work to improve mineral supply chains originating in the Democratic Republic of Congo and investigate corruption that robs the Congolese people of their country’s natural resource wealth, it would be deeply troubling,” the organization said in a statement to Yahoo News. “Such invasive and arbitrary targeting of human rights defenders would be a violation of privacy, a hindrance to this important work, and a waste of public resources.”

A CBP official who asked not to be named told Yahoo News that the National Targeting Center has put in place new procedures and training designed to ensure that the First and Fourth amendments are not being violated. The official declined, however, to specify what those measures were.

Congressional oversight committees have also begun looking into the division’s activities.

Rep. Benny Thompson, chair of the House Homeland Security Committee and Carolyn Maloney, chair of the Committee on Oversight and Reform, sent a letter to the DHS inspector general requesting the report.

“We write you regarding disturbing reports that the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Counter Network Division used government databases to “vet” journalists, government officials, congressional members and their staff, NGO workers, and others by obtaining travel records as well as financial and personal information,” they wrote in a Dec. 14 letter to the DHS inspector general.

“The Office of Inspector General (OIG) investigated at least one Counter Network Division employee, Mr. Jeffrey Rambo, who used government databases to gather information on an American journalist Ali Watkins,” Thompson and Maloney wrote the DHS, citing reporting by Yahoo News.

Ali Watkins during an interview regrading her reporting on Russian espionage on PBS on June 1, 2017. (PBS/YouTube)
Ali Watkins during an interview regrading her reporting on Russian espionage on PBS on June 1, 2017. (PBS/YouTube)

Chairs Thompson and Maloney requested a copy of the Office of the Inspector General report for its investigation into Rambo and any other reports related to conduct by the Counter Network Division by Dec. 21, 2021. The DHS inspector general has to date not provided the committees with the requested information, according to congressional sources.

Sen. Ron Wyden, chair of the Senate Finance Committee, which has oversight over CBP, has also requested a copy of the inspector general report, but a spokesman for Wyden said he has still not received a copy.

The inspector general did not respond to a request for comment from Yahoo News about the congressional requests.

The DHS has declined to answer any questions posed by Yahoo News about Operation Whistle Pig and the activities of the Counter Network Division. However, in a statement, the department said that DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas “is deeply committed to ensuring the protection of First Amendment rights and has promulgated policies that reflect this priority.”

“We do not condone the investigation of reporters in response to the exercise of First Amendment rights,” the statement continued. “CBP and every component agency and office in the Department will ensure their practices are consistent with our values and our highest standards.”