DHS to provide Congress with Operation Whistle Pig report detailing spying on journalists, lawmakers

U.S. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR) questions Charles P. Rettig, commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service, during the Senate Finance Committee hearing titled The IRS Fiscal Year 2022 Budget, in Dirksen Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C., U.S., June 8, 2021. Tom Williams/Pool via REUTERS
U.S. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR) in Dirksen Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C. in 2021. (Tom Williams/Pool via Reuters)

The Department of Homeland Security told Congress this week that it will provide it with an inspector general report on Operation Whistle Pig, a sprawling leak investigation conducted by a secretive unit at Customs and Border Protection that regularly used the country’s most sensitive databases to investigate the finances, travel and personal connections of journalists, congressional members and staff and other Americans not suspected of any crime.

Yahoo News’ reporting on Operation Whistle Pig prompted swift outrage from civil liberties groups and resulted in the launch of four congressional probes and an internal CBP review. For months, the committees with oversight jurisdiction over CBP have requested copies of the inspector general report. DHS has blocked or stalled congressional efforts to obtain the report. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, has been requesting this report for years.

The efforts by members of Congress to obtain the report escalated in recent days and weeks, stalling the Senate confirmation of Ken Wainstein as head of the Office of Intelligence and Analysis, a division of the DHS.

On Tuesday, an agreement to provide Congress with the inspector general report broke the stalemate, congressional sources told Yahoo News. The Senate agreed to confirm Wainstein on the condition that he agreed to hand over the report and other long-delayed information requested by Congress.

“We have a commitment to get the Whistle Pig IG report within 30 days,” Keith Chu, a spokesperson for Wyden told Yahoo News. “This was a condition of supporting Wainstein.”

Neither the DHS nor CBP responded to Yahoo News’ multiple requests for comment. The Office of Inspector General at the DHS also did not respond to requests for comment.

The report in question details the findings of a two-year probe into allegations involving Jeffrey Rambo, a border patrol agent working at CBP’s Counter Network Division, and referred him, his supervisor and a colleague for criminal prosecution. Citing the lack of policies and procedures governing the division’s work, the Justice Department declined to prosecute them. All three remain in their jobs.

Jeffrey Rambo
Jeffrey Rambo, right, in his San Diego coffee shop, Storymakers Coffee Roasters. (Sandy Huffaker for Yahoo News)

After Yahoo News’ initial reporting, CBP said it was conducting a review of the division.

“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.

A CBP official told Yahoo News in December that the National Targeting Center, home to the Counter Network Division, put in place a number of safeguards, including safeguards on First Amendment protections. The ongoing review is meant to assess and ensure that those policies and practices respect the dignity of every individual; protect against discrimination; safeguard privacy, civil rights, and civil liberties; and increase transparency and accountability. CBP has declined to provide any update on its review.

In the weeks that followed Yahoo News’ initial Dec. 11 report, CBP and the DHS provided tepid statements referencing their support of the First Amendment. DHS said Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas had “promulgated policies” in support of First Amendment activities but provided Yahoo News with no additional information on what exactly that means.

A month later, Yahoo News reported that this same CBP division was monitoring right-wing groups and American protesters. This prompted more outrage from current and former DHS officials who had worked with the same unit and as well as from civil liberties groups who questioned the authority under which CBP had strayed wildly from its mission — safeguarding the country’s borders — to spy on Americans.

Border Patrol agents hold a news conference prior to a media tour of a new U.S. Customs and Border Protection temporary facility near the Donna International Bridge in Donna, Texas in 2021. (Eric Gay/AP)
Border Patrol agents hold a news conference prior to a media tour of a new U.S. Customs and Border Protection temporary facility near the Donna International Bridge in Donna, Texas in 2021. (Eric Gay/AP)

Rambo’s supervisor, Dan White, who was referred for criminal prosecution but never charged, told investigators that CBP’s Counter Network Division regularly used terrorism watch lists and other databases to ascertain the personal connections of journalists. “We are pushing the limits and so there is no norm, there are no guidelines,” White told investigators. “We are the ones making the guidelines.”

In June 2017, under direction from White and other supervisors, Rambo launched Operation Whistle Pig, a sprawling leak investigation into journalist Ali Watkins and her relationship with Senate aide James Wolfe.

While the Justice Department and the FBI have strict guidelines for investigations involving members of the media, CBP does not. Rambo, his supervisor and colleagues and at least three outside contractors provided the FBI with detailed records on at least 20 national security reporters, according to an FBI counterespionage memo included in the inspector general report.