A Secretive Border Patrol Unit Worked With the FBI to Investigate Journalists

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. The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Robert F. Kennedy, was among those being investigated. Associated PressMartha Mendoza, reporter, and others at The Huffington Post, The Wall Street Journal The New York Times. Jana Winter, an investigative correspondent who broke this 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.”


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be final.

AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show with a shocking Yahoo News exposéAbout a secretive Customs and Border Protection unit which investigated up to 20 journalists and their contacts using government databases to track terrorists. Those investigated by CBP’s so-called Counter Network Division include the Pulitzer Prize-winning Associated PressMartha Mendoza, reporter, and others at The Huffington Post, Wall Street Journal New York Times. Members of Congress and their staff might also have 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. The probe was opened after news reports that Jeffrey Rambo, a Border Patrol agent, conducted a leak investigation in 2017. He accessed government travel records of Ali Watkins. PoliticoIt was at the time and it still works The New York Times. Rambo also shared the information that he gathered with them 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.”

Monday: APDemanded 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 APSpokesperson 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 NewsWhose major new developments? exposé is headlined “Operation Whistle Pig: Inside the secret CBP unit with no rules that investigates Americans.”

We are glad you are here Democracy Now!, Jana. We will tell you about what happened and why Operation Whistle Pig was named that.

JANA WINTER:First, thank you for having me here. 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. His leak investigation initially targeted Ali Watkins (Senate staffer James Wolfe), but it soon spread to at least 20 other journalists.

And I’d also like to mention that we have no information that this is not occurring today. They are the same people. 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:It all began with a White House order to examine forced labor in the Democratic Republic of Congo. This included information about companies that were using cobalt mined from child labor to make consumer goods like phones in China. Rambo is given the task of devising a plan to find these data points and give it to the White House. The White House would then, theoretically, hit them with sanctions under the Tariff Act of 1930.

Rambo compiles a list with reporters. NGOWorkers, government officials from other agencies, and academics who might be able to provide information about these data points on companies using forced labor. Martha Mendoza, a reporter who specializes in this type of reporting, is included on the initial list. AP.

Rambo also created a second list. Rambo was looking for a national-security reporter with buzz who could publish articles that weren’t necessarily accurate and that would overstate U.S. law enforcement’s capabilities. This would essentially trick these companies into changing their shipping patterns, which would provide enough evidence to subject them to sanctions under the Tariff Act of 30. 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:Yes, I am trying to be clear. Rambo is the fall guy here, I think. There was a Washington Post story a long time ago that talked about him being this rogue agent — and if only. We now know that he did everything, every step of the way. From his plan to target journalists to reaching them to their sources to the vetting of journalists to looking into their source to contacting the authorities. FBITo conduct an in-house leak investigation, and then to contact 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. He is now back at his position as the head of his division. DHSThis is something I will not discuss or speak publicly about.

This goes all 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 pieceRambo’s Washington experience includes a large glass globe with clear oceans, cobalt blue seas, and clear land. This award was given to him by CBPFor his work that was rewarded with a cash prize. The globe is a reminder of his work at National Targeting Center, which included the Watkins/Wolfe case.


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:He was indeed a hero in the inside. CBPThis was before it 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 don’t know what it 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. This is so much bigger than Rambo. It’s going on today. The administration is silent, burying their heads in the sand like we won’t notice. The same people are back at work, despite being referred for criminal charges.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Jana, let’s go back. Your response 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 CBPThey launched an investigation into their own. DHSInspector general did what they do: launch an investigation to follow-up. They recommended that things be prosecuted. 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 for the question.

JANA WINTER: Yeah, they didn’t answer that. I don’t want to be too negative on them, because they 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 believe they should have done this.

But there are so many — I think we’re looking at this from the wrong end. This is a deliberate decision. 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 DOJIt is certain that he was involved as this material was passed 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 view the travel records. He lied about the travel records. He was sentenced for lying about these matters. There’s a direct connection. DHSThis is the responsibility of the overseers. The White House right now — this is not just a Trump political moment. This is an ongoing division, which exists to circumvent these rules. The people running it stated the same 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. His office has been ignored in this capacity for quite some time.


JANA WINTER:Then there’s the [inaudible] — no, you go ahead. Sorry.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ:You mentioned the FBI. Could you speak about their involvement? Also, you mentioned Wolfe’s trial. I don’t know if many listeners of our program are aware of that. Could you please talk about this particular case?

JANA WINTER: Sure. James Wolfe used be the director for 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. Rambo is now investigating how to reach these reporters. He’s looking at Ali Watkins, who’s then a PoliticoRising star national security journalist. 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. Rambo now begins this leak investigation.

Before he arranges to meet Ali Watkins under an alias, and all other strange things, he reaches for an administrator. 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 FBIEarly on, he sees a reporter receiving classified information. This is the man he believes she is dating. Ali Watkins claims she did not receive any information from that person. James Wolfe was never charged or convicted of leaking classified information. 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 FBIThe day after meeting 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. This is just one part of it.

Rambo continues to investigate, but eventually he discovers that there is more to the story. 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 thirty seconds.

JANA WINTER: OK. OK. FBIThis unit has no rules or procedures and continues to function today.

AMY GOODMAN: Jana Winter, investigative correspondent for Yahoo News. We will connect to your major new initiative 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.