Senator slams CBP for investigating journalists and demands internal report be turned over to Congress

WASHINGTON — Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., is demanding that the Department of Homeland Security’s watchdog turn over its research on employees involved in a leak investigation of a reporter and a congressional staffer.

“The Department of Homeland Security [inspector general] must provide its investigation to Congress immediately,” Wyden said Sunday in a statement to Yahoo News. “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.”

Customs and Border Patrol agents
Customs and Border Patrol agents. (Eric Gay/AP)

Yahoo News on Saturday published an article revealing that a secretive unit at Customs and Border Protection had started a leak investigation into Ali Watkins, a reporter now at the New York Times, and her then boyfriend, James Wolfe. At the time, Wolfe was the security chief of the Senate select committee on intelligence.

The unit, known as the Counter Network Division, investigated up to 20 journalists, as well as members of Congress and their respective staffs. The investigations involved conducting database searches on their travel and looking at whether they had any connections to the terrorism watchlist, as well as gathering other personal data.

Yahoo News obtained a full copy of the inspector general report, and interviewed Jeffrey Rambo, the CBP official who initiated the leak investigation. Rambo and two other CBP employees were referred for possible prosecution by the inspector general, but no charges were filed.

Senator Ron Wyden
Sen. Ron Wyden. (Jemal Countess/Getty Images for SEIU)

Wyden is the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, which has oversight of CBP, and he also has long been involved in legislation and debate surrounding government surveillance.

“If the allegations in this story are true, Customs and Border Protection has flagrantly abused government surveillance powers to target journalists and elected officials under the flimsiest of pretenses,” he said in the statement. “This story shows exactly why Americans should fear the expansion of government surveillance.”

“To start, DHS should immediately adopt the Justice Department’s guidelines that limit investigations of journalists and issue public reports with statistics on its searches of reporter records,” he added.

The DHS and CBP did not immediately respond to requests for comment.