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“No Rules”: A Border Patrol Unit Worked with the FBI to Investigate Journalists. Is It Still Running?

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A shocking exposé reveals how a secretive Customs and Border Protection division investigated as many as 20 journalists and their contacts by using government databases intended to track terrorists. Those investigated include the Pulitzer Prize-winning Associated Press reporter Martha Mendoza, along with others at The Huffington Post, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. We speak to Jana Winter, the investigative correspondent who broke the story at Yahoo News, who says it’s unclear if the surveillance program was discontinued. “These were career officials who are still running this secretive unit with no rules and no procedures for how they access these databases,” says Winter. “They target Americans who are located in the United States who are not suspected of any crime whatsoever.”

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Transcript
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show with a shocking Yahoo News exposé about a secretive Customs and Border Protection unit that investigated as many as 20 journalists and their contacts by using government databases intended to track terrorists. Those investigated by CBP’s so-called Counter Network Division include the Pulitzer Prize-winning Associated Press reporter Martha Mendoza, along with others at The Huffington Post, Wall Street Journal and New York Times. Members of Congress and their staff may have also been targeted.

The explosive revelations are detailed in a 500-page report by the Department of Homeland Security’s watchdog unit, the Office of Inspector General. It opened the probe after news reports that a Border Patrol agent named Jeffrey Rambo conducted a leak investigation in 2017 by accessing government travel records of the reporter Ali Watkins, who was with Politico at the time and now works for The New York Times. Rambo also shared the information he gathered with the FBI.

In response to the report, the Justice Department declined to pursue criminal charges for misuse of government databases and lying to investigators, citing, quote, “the lack of CBP policies and procedures concerning Rambo’s duties.”

On Monday, the AP demanded an explanation. In a letter to DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, AP Executive Editor Julie Pace wrote, quote, “This is a flagrant example of a federal agency using its power to examine the contacts of journalists. While the actions detailed in the inspector general’s report occurred under a previous administration, the practices were described as routine,” unquote.

An AP spokesperson told Democracy Now!, quote, “We are deeply concerned about this apparent abuse of power. This appears to be an example of journalists being targeted for simply doing their jobs, which is a violation of the First Amendment,” they said.

For more, we’re joined by Jana Winter, the investigative correspondent for Yahoo News whose major new exposé is headlined “Operation Whistle Pig: Inside the secret CBP unit with no rules that investigates Americans.”

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Jana. Take us through what took place and why this was called Operation Whistle Pig.

JANA WINTER: First, thanks for having me on. Second, there’s a lot of tentacles here, so just bear with me.

Operation Whistle Pig was a leak investigation started by a Border Patrol agent named Jeffrey Rambo, who was detailed to CBP’s Counter Network Division. And initially, his leak investigation targeted Ali Watkins and Senate staffer James Wolfe, but it spread to as many as 20 other journalists.

And I’d also like to mention that we have no information that this is not occurring today. The same people are in charge. The same people are regularly — air quotes — kind of “vetting” journalists who they think might have information they would like to have or who they want to reach out to.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Jana, if you could, could you talk about why they began targeting Ali Watkins and the Senate Intelligence Committee staffer and how they originally — how this Rambo initially contacted her?

JANA WINTER: Well, it began, as one definitely would not suspect, with an order from the White House to look at forced labor in the Democratic Republic of Congo, specifically about what companies were using cobalt mined by child labor to produce consumer goods, like phones in China. So, Rambo gets a tasking to come up with a plan to find these data points to give to the White House, who would then, in theory, hit them, hit the companies, with sanctions under a Tariff Act of 1930.

So Rambo puts together a list of reporters and NGO workers and government officials from other agencies and people from academia who might provide information on these data points about what companies are using forced labor. On that initial list are reporters who specialize in this kind of reporting, like Martha Mendoza from the AP.

Rambo also created another list. He was looking for a national security reporter with buzz who could, unbeknownst to the reporter herself, publish articles that were not necessarily accurate, that would overstate the capabilities of U.S. law enforcement, to essentially trick these companies into altering their shipping patterns, which would be enough evidence to hit them with sanctions under the Tariff Act of 1930. So that’s where Ali Watkins comes in. He saw — Rambo saw her article trending on Twitter and thought, “OK, I’ll use Ali Watkins.” And that’s how it happened.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And in terms of Rambo himself, any sense of how high up in the chain of command the knowledge of this surveillance of reporters’ activities went?

JANA WINTER: Yeah, I want to be really clear. I mean, Rambo is obviously the fall guy here. There was a Washington Post story a long time ago that talked about him being this rogue agent — and if only. I mean, now we know, based on all of these documents, that everything he did, on every single step of the way, from his plan targeting journalists to reaching out to journalists, to the vetting of journalists, to looking into their sources, to contacting the FBI, to running a leak investigation in-house, to then contacting the FBI again — all of this was done with the knowledge and under the orders of his boss, Dan White, who was referred for criminal prosecution for multiple things, including making false statements to investigators. And he is now back at his job running his division, and DHS will not talk about this or say anything publicly about what is going on.

But this goes all the way up. This is not — these aren’t political appointees who were tasked with something at CBP; these were career officials who are still running this secretive unit with no rules and no procedures for how they access these databases, and they target — you know, targeting Americans who are located in the United States who are not suspected of any crime whatsoever.

AMY GOODMAN: But let’s be clear, Jana, talking about it not being a rogue operation, as you point out in your piece, one of the keepsakes that Rambo has from his time in the Washington area is a large glass globe with cobalt blue oceans and clear land, an award from CBP for his work that came with a cash bonus. The globe is a reminder that before the press coverage, before the press coverage, he was lauded for his work at the National Targeting Center, including on the Watkins/Wolfe case.

JANA WINTER: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: The plaque on the globe reads: “Jeffrey Rambo — In Honor and Recognition of Your Dedication to the National Targeting Center Counter Network Division [in] 2017.” And at his going-away party, his boss even cited his work on the leak investigation. Jana?

JANA WINTER: Yeah, he was a hero inside CBP, until this became public. So, he definitely has been thrown under the bus here, whether — not saying what he did was great at all, but this was something that — I mean, they also made him the Five Eyes representative for all of DHS. There’s one person that does that for their annual or biannual, or something, meeting. He was a hero internally and was completely blindsided by them throwing him under the bus and saying, you know, “Oh, we’re going to investigate this guy. We have no idea what this is. This is a completely rogue agent who did all of these things.” And his life has been severely impacted by this.

But I think it’s important to — I mean, no offense, but not to focus on Rambo here. I mean, this is much bigger than him. It’s going on today. The administration is silent, burying their heads in the sand like we won’t notice. And the same people, despite criminal referrals, are back at work doing these same things.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Jana, let’s go back. In response to your Yahoo News report, Democratic Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon has called on DHS’s inspector general to turn over its investigation to Congress immediately. Wyden said in a statement Sunday, “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.” Of course, Senator Wyden is chair of the Senate Finance Committee. Can you talk about even the report, this 500-page report that you got a hold of, that the senators are saying they can’t get?

JANA WINTER: I mean, first of all, that’s ridiculous. I just think — I mean, personally, just as a regular person, I’m super disappointed with many aspects of this, including the oversight aspect. I think CBP launched an investigation into one of their own. DHS inspector general did what they do, which is launch an investigation to follow up. And they recommended things for prosecution. I don’t know — they did not answer my questions about if they had provided this report to Congress.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Oh, I was going to ask.

JANA WINTER: Yeah, they didn’t answer that. I don’t want to be too negative on them, because there were literally the only agency that got back to me, out of everyone, under deadline, and actually said something that was responsive to something I asked — not this particular question. But so, I don’t really know if they were supposed to hand it over to Congress. I imagine they should have done that.

But there are so many — I think we’re looking at this from the wrong end. I think that this is by design. I think this is not some, “Oh, of course, all the agencies knew about this, and that was a mistake.” It’s, no, this was a division created to avoid, you know, the pesky bureaucracy involved with sharing sensitive information and databases. The person running the team, Rambo’s boss, who, again, was referred for criminal prosecution and is back at work running the same team, told investigators during all this that their division pushes the limits, they are the guidelines, there are no other ones, they’re the ones making the decisions, they’re the ones making the rules. And DOJ was certainly involved, because this material was passed on to the FBI, and it was — there’s no way to say that it wasn’t used during the prosecution of James Wolfe, the Senate aide. It’s just not possible. You can see the travel records. He lied about the travel records. He went to jail for lying about these things. There’s a direct connection. DHS oversees this. The White House right now — this is not just a Trump political moment. This is an ongoing division that exists to skirt these rules. And the people who run it said as much to OIG investigators.

So this is not — you know, I just think — I don’t know. I’m interested to see if Wyden can get any traction, obviously, since we have been ignored in every capacity. And frankly, his office has been ignored in this exact capacity for quite a while.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Jana?

JANA WINTER: And the [inaudible] — no, you go ahead. Sorry.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: You mentioned the FBI. Could you talk about their involvement in this? And also you mentioned the case against Wolfe. I don’t know if many listeners of our program are aware of that. Could you talk about that case specifically?

JANA WINTER: Sure. So, James Wolfe used to be the director of security for the Senate Intelligence Committee. And he went to jail for — went to prison for two months for — after pleading guilty to charges — I guess, in the beginning, here’s what happened. So, Rambo is looking into contacting these reporters. He’s looking at Ali Watkins, who’s then a Politico rising star national security reporter. He vets her, meaning he runs all of her travel — you know, looks at her travel, sees that she’s traveling with this older gentleman, older by more than 30 years, who he later identifies as this Senate aide. This is James Wolfe. So, Rambo starts this leak investigation.

Before he even arranges to meet Ali Watkins, under an alias and all sorts of other weird things, he reaches out to an FBI contact of his who’s now at headquarters, and says, “I’ve got something I think is in your swim lane. Please call me immediately.” So, Rambo is working with the FBI very early on this, on what he sees is a reporter who is getting classified information from this man that he thinks she is dating. Ali Watkins continues to say that she did not receive information from that person, and James Wolfe was never convicted or even charged with leaking classified information, just to be clear. But the FBI, Jeff Rambo passed along all of Ali’s travel records, Facebook posts, all sorts of other data that they had run from her, her connections to the terror watchlist, which dragged up Arianna Huffington — who is objectively not a terrorist, I think we all know — and continued to pull all of these records. And he wanted to hand over — Rambo wanted to hand over all of this information to the FBI the day after he met with Ali Watkins. He said, you know, “I believe that she is leaking information” — I mean, “she’s receiving leaked information from him. Let’s pass this to the FBI as a leak investigation.”

His boss, Dan White, again, the same one who’s still there now, he said, “No, no, no, why don’t we just take him in it and continue to investigate her in-house? Let’s see if she has any sources within the Department of Homeland Security.” So they ran a whole other investigation, which is Operation Whistle Pig, named after the whiskey that Rambo drank when he was meeting with Ali Watkins at the bar. There are so many parts of this where, yeah.

So, over time, Rambo has amped up his investigation, but he finds out that the FBI is actually not pursuing his probe, until he gets back to San Diego at the end of his detail to the Targeting Center, and he gets a call that says, “Hey, it’s the FBI. We have just opened up a new leak investigation unit in-house, and we would love all this information again.” So, they make him sign —

AMY GOODMAN: Jana, we have 30 seconds.

JANA WINTER: OK. So, basically, we have no idea how many other reporters have been investigated by the FBI, thanks to this unit that has no rules and no procedures and continues to operate today.

AMY GOODMAN: Jana Winter, investigative correspondent for Yahoo News. We will link to your major new exposé, “Operation Whistle Pig: Inside the secret CBP unit with no rules that investigates Americans.”

When we come back, we speak with one of the workers at a Buffalo Starbucks that just won a historic victory after they voted to unionize last week, making them the first to do so among Starbucks’ 9,000 stores in the United States, then to Memphis to speak with one of 1,400 Kellogg’s workers who have now been on strike for two months. Stay with us.

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